Book Reviews

The Midnight Library - Review

Matt Haig's spectacular new book will leave you understanding that life doesn't fit a schedule or ideal, and that's good.

JANUARY 12th, 2020


Author: Matt Haig

© Canongate Books


here is a belief in my household – one stuffed with bookworms – that a good book can help define a moment in time, a great book redefines it. These stories rarely come along, but when they do, they shatter your soul and rebuild it renewed. 2020 – and seemingly 2021 – have been shaky, to say the least, and left many people around the world in unexpected circumstances. For many, it has felt as if 2020 specifically has been against us – tripping us up with every step we’ve taken.

Nora Seed finds herself in a similar situation at the start of Matt Haig’s latest bestseller The Midnight Library. With her life falling apart – job lost, her beloved cat dead, her best friend no longer returning her emails whilst living her dream life in Australia, and distant contact with her brother – Nora’s world becomes a spiralling, cataclysmic amalgamation of depression.

Cover of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig - © Canongate Books

Her existence becoming too much – or as we discover, not enough – she decides to take her own life. At first glance, it could be perceived as a morose or macabre subject to set a novel around, but if Matt Haig is celebrated for anything as a writer, it is his unique ability to make the uncomfortable somehow comforting.

As Nora awakens inside the midnight library – a place existing between life and death, whereby a person, or at least their consciousness, can choose from an infinite number of books containing different versions of their lives – she begins a discovery in what it means to live.

At its foundation, The Midnight Library is a story of self-discovery, and yet it stems towards so much more. There are moments when the words leave the page and touch your own life, forcing you to question your own decisions and wondering whether your own library is waiting beyond this world.

It is here where Nora Seed’s story feels the most effective, universally relatable, tangible and real. At a time when so many have sacrificed so much – the book itself is dedicated to the frontline healthcare workers fighting the pandemic – The Midnight Library provides comfort in reminding us all that nothing is set in stone.

Matt Haig photographed for the Telegraph - © Telegraph

With each life Nora enters, from owning a pub, becoming a famous musician or living a life of wedded bliss, it never becomes enough to convince her to stay in that world. She always ends up back in the library. Her choices matter, and whether good or bad, they define her. And as Mrs Elm – Nora’s childhood school librarian who shows her around the library – demonstrates, each resulting definition doesn’t necessarily follow the theme of each choice.

With so much uncertainty in the world, it is refreshing and soothing to read a novel which takes the ambiguity of life and celebrates its fluid motion, instead of demonising it. What The Midnight Library reminds you, is that life has its ups and downs, not solely by choice but by design. Every action Nora makes, every book she steps into has a result that cannot be controlled, and what she thinks she may want from life, isn’t necessarily the truth. Her perfect world is as unstable as her imperfect one.

Towards the end of the book, Nora’s rediscovery of what life means – not in the great and grand scheme of all things, but in the intimate construct of her own existence – is that there is no such thing as perfect or imperfect. And that is the beauty of life.

There is the saying, “all good things end”. It is true. The Midnight Library proves it. Nora’s story is one which you don’t want to end. But Matt Haig’s brilliant and moving novel looks to reset that saying – whether he consciously hoped to or not.

“All good things end, but so do bad things too.”

Nora discovers a library where she can live out an infinite number of different lives. - © Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

It is here why The Midnight Library enters the category of a great book in my household. The past year, and even the first days of 2021, have defined a frightening period in our lives. The loss of decency, respect, compassion, empathy and kindness has caused stumbling blocks for societal growth – loss that I or even maybe all of us have contributed to? And yet, like the life of Nora Seed, we all have our own Mrs Elm, supervising the way, providing hope and gentle guidance, even in a world which may feel guideless.

As Nora reflects on her time in the library, she writes a blog post, reaffirming her decision to live, and it perfectly sums up how life – or death – can be redefined: ‘The impossible, I suppose, happens via living.

Will my life by miraculously free from pain, despair, grief, heartbreak, hardship, loneliness, depression? No.

But do I want to live?

Yes. Yes.

A thousand times, yes.’

The greatest compliment I can give The Midnight Library is that it has redefined 2020. For me, and I expect for many others, it has helped stabilise the traumas of the last year – the fears of a never-ending tragic pandemic, rife social and racial injustice, and the breaking down of democracy – not by offering solutions, but by ensuring that hope might just exist in the next book on the midnight library’s shelf.

The future may be uncertain, but isn’t every future so? And that’s perfectly and imperfectly okay.

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