Matt Haig’s novel, The Midnight Library, describes the twenty-seven hours it takes Nora Seed to choose life or death.
The Midnight Library, Chapter One begins, “Nineteen years before she decided to die . . .” Now that’s a novel opening hard to ignore. Some time passes by Chapter Two, “Twenty-seven hours before she decided to die . . .” The reader now knows that Nora Seed has not changed her mind. Matt Haig‘s The Midnight Library covers those twenty-seven hours.
Nora Seed is a mid-thirties college graduate living in the small town where she grew up. In high school she was a star swimmer with an Olympics future, an excellent student, a musician who sang and played along with her brother’s band, appropriately called Labyrinth, and she loved nature and philosophy. By all appearances, the world should have been her oyster. But appearances can be deceiving.
After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in philosophy, Nora returns home to quiet, dull, Bedfordshire (yes, we are in England). She doesn’t become the Olympic swimmer her father had dreamed of, or Labyrinth’s singer, or the scientist her school librarian, dear Mrs. Elm, had suggested. The only person she never disappointed was her mother “who treated Nora like a mistake, in need of correction.” Nora’s post-Cambridge return to Bedford includes taking care of her ill mother and working at String Theory, a record/music store. Did you hear those two clues go kerplop? Labyrinth and String Theory? A maze and a parallel universe? Nora’s life in dull Bedfordshire is closing in on her and she sees no way out.
This is a novel of “what ifs” and “I should haves.” Both are most human thoughts for any of us who may have taken one path over another or, most likely, have taken a path we now regret.
The midnight library of the book’s title is not your neighborhood library with extremely long hours, although it is a library of sorts. It is where Nora Seed finds herself after following through, with the help of pills, on her decision to die. Her wristwatch tells her it is midnight as she stands in front of a library and steps through the library door, which closes and then disappears upon her entry. Along with endless bookshelves with thousands of books all in shades of green, all in different sizes, and all with no writing on their spines. Most surprising is the librarian, a now-aged Mrs. Elm. Nora’s watch reads 00:00. Time has stopped. For how long?
Nora is not quite dead—not quite alive. Mrs. Elm, ever the helpful librarian, explains while opening a Book of Regrets, Nora’s regrets, that each of the other books contains a story of her life with no regrets. The Book of Regrets is very large and very heavy. Mrs. Elm tells Nora she can choose to step into her life as an Olympic swimmer, an Arctic anthropologist, a musician, a singer, a wife, a mother, any life she regrets not having lived. Could Thoreau’s words, “Live the life you’ve imagined” be this simple? But what if that life is no more fulfilling and freer of regret than her life in Bedford, which is also one of the green books?
This is a novel of discernment. The alternative lives are real and if that life is what Nora imagined, she can remain. If, however, that life is not what she imagined, it does not require escape by choosing suicide; only by stepping out of it to be returned to the Midnight Library and Mrs. Elm. Unfortunately, the time in which to make such choices is not eternal (remember the watch stopped at 12:00 a.m.?) and Nora’s time is growing short. Will she decide, that indeed, it is time to leave her life of regrets? Is it time to leave the Midnight Library, where, outside, time and her death will resume?
Of course, I’m not about to tell you what Nora chooses, only that I think this book a terrific read, and grist for the “what if” mill in our own lives. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Matt Haig: How to Stop Time; Reasons to Stay Alive; The Humans; Notes on A Nervous Planet; The Radleys; The Last Family in England; To Be A Cat and Shadow Forest; The Comfort Book; The Possession of Mr. Cave; Humans, An A to Z; A Boy Called Christmas; The Dead Fathers Club; Evie and The Animals; The Girl Who Saved Christmas; Father Christmas; Samuel Blink and The Hidden Forest.
Bookin’ with Sunny strongly supports Independent Bookstores and Public Libraries.