An interesting ‘what-if’, that’s under-developed in favour of a self-help manual in fictional form. After her life rapidly goes to shit, the main character, Nora, feels she has nothing left to live for and decides to end it with an overdose. But even that doesn’t work out for her, and she finds herself somewhere between life and death, in the baffling Midnight Library.
The library concept is a winner, for this former librarian anyway: an infinity of shelves of books of all your possible lives, with a bit of multiversal/quantum theory thrown in (liked that too) curated by a cryptic, omniscient librarian (big like). Nora gets to experiment with all sorts of different lives, from rock star to glacier scientist to Olympic swimming champion, teleporting back to the library when they no longer appeal. Problem is, none of them appeal for long. She finds an almost perfect life as an affluent yummy-mummy-author living in Cambridge with a perfect husband, adorable daughter, lovely home, golden labrador etc, but even that’s not quite right (and obviously if that doesn’t make a girl happy, nothing will…) At this point she realises – you’ll never guess – that happiness and meaning in life Come From Within. So lucky Nora gets to start again, armed with this insight, and the kindly quantum-librarian’s work is done.
The Midnight Library reads more like a fable than a novel, with the moral spelt out loud and clear. Be kind. You are full of potential. Small actions can have big effects. Be true to yourself. All fine for motivational Instagram posts, but a novel, not so much. It also feels very YA, though it’s marketed as adult fiction. Whatever. Multitudes of troubled souls will understandably find solace in these pages, and three cheers for Matt Haig for turning out very readable books that get people through dark times (his ‘Reasons to stay alive’ helped me when I needed it, so I’m not going to snark). If you’re depressed to the point of considering suicide, you need to have things set out very simply in easy to digest form – which Matt Haig certainly does. If I was at the cliff-edge (again), I know I’d respond to the book’s earnest message of hope, and insistence that life is worth staying alive for. On the other hand, relentless messaging doesn’t make for top-quality fiction. It’s not a great novel, but it will be an important book for an awful lot of people, and that’s pretty huge.