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  • Writer's pictureFrederic Martin

Review: The Midnight Library

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

All of us have “If I had only …” moments. All of us occasionally fantasize about what life might have been like if we had taken a slightly different path. And all of us get depressed from time to time. But only an unfortunate handful of us might experience a perfect storm of rumination that plunges us into a spiraling decline, driving us to the rash decision to take our own life.

In the first chapters of “The Midnight Library,” Matt Haig introduces us to Nora Seed, a washed-up thirty-something musician living in a low-rent flat in Bedford, England. Haig deftly walks us through what turns out to be a “day-of-days” for Nora, a day where she is confronted with every bad decision she’s made in her life. The rapid pile-up of regrets bouncing around in the echo chamber of her mind drives her to such an extreme state of despair that she can find only one way to escape. Suicide.

But Nora’s suicide does not result in death. At least not yet. And this is where Haig shows his creativity and the book takes a brilliant turn. Instead of the familiar ‘plunging toward a bright light while her entire life flashes in front of her,’ scene, Nora finds herself in a quiet library with bookshelves that appear to go on to infinity. The Midnight Library. There, she discovers a librarian that takes the form of a benevolent mentor she had early in life, Mrs. Elm. Mrs. Elm guides Nora through her ‘book of regrets’ and offers Nora books from the library that allow her to experience her life if it had taken a different turn. A sampler, if you will, of all those alternate lives each of us would like to experience if only we could reverse those regrets.

The remainder of the book is an entertaining reenactment of a day or two in each of those alternate lives. Friends and family of Nora, introduced in the beginning of the book, are present in these alternative lives and their alternate realizations help Nora discover a deeper understanding of not only her own true character, but the character of those that surround her.

Each of these snapshots is cleanly written and shows Haig’s deep understanding of human traits and foibles. He makes each character a believable and relatable human being, weaving realistic relationships between them that hold up across the diverse landscapes of each of Nora’s alternate lives.

The only place the story goes into the rough is when Haig gets sucked into the trap of overly explaining the lessons Nora is supposed to be learning from each of these alternate life paths. The narrative threatens to become platitude-rich, almost as if a CliffNotes explanation was being pulled from the margins and injected into a scene. Perhaps some find this helpful and enlightening, but I found myself saying, “I get it, I get it already,” and skimming over those explanatory parts. If you can get into the right rhythm you can anticipate those parts and filter them out, allowing the high quality of the story underneath to shine through.

In the end, Nora does find a final path back to her real life and I found the resolution to be very satisfying. I closed the book with a thoughtful smile on my face. I would not say this was a book that I would put on my read-again list, however, I would recommend re-reading the first fourteen chapters before you put it away on your bookshelf. Doing so provides an extended resolution, like the flashback scenes during the credits of a movie, and gives you an appreciation of the care that Haig used in creating the groundwork for the transition to the midnight library. And perhaps it will give you, as it did for me, a little more insight into the themes of the story.

All in all, a creative, solidly written (with caveats), worthwhile read.

4.2/5 stars

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