Welcome, welcome. Sheesh. I've had a few busy weeks and a short reading lull, but we're back with The Midnight Library!
Before reading this I had actually come to know of Matt Haig more through social media posts than his published works, I suppose. Haig is a keen mental health advocate and quotes of his, or those that he shares often pop up in different places on the internet. It made sense to me then, when I came across his hugely successful novel, The Midnight Library (still in the UK top 50 over a year after its publication), for the first time, that it centred around a person's struggle with suicide and depression. And so, as far as unravelling a mental health disorder and eliminating the mystique of the experience through writing goes, I was expecting something great.
Nora Seed is a young woman who looks at her life, thus far, as a series of regrets. She describes a loss of love for life, a feeling that she has 'blown her chances' and a battle with depression which leads her to commit suicide. From here, the novel turns on its head and the glorious fantasy element ensues. The time is 00:00:00 and Nora finds herself in the Midnight Library. I'm allergic to spoilers so I didn't originally plan on describing the plot much but, really, the blurb does reveal this element; the library contains all of the lives that she could have lived, concealed within books, and Nora has a chance to live them one by one.
"While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility."
The concept of the library, a place in limbo between life and death, was such an interesting idea and proved to be a brilliant tool for Haig to play around with the themes of the novel. The sci-fi aspects, one being the notion of parallel universes, were explained only to a minimum (which was all that was needed) and what was left was a small looming element of mystery. The librarian's character, 'Mrs Elm', and the fabric of the fake reality they were surrounded by added an enjoyable, thrilling element to the story—used as a way to dip into Nora's inner psyche. I took real pleasure in seeing a concept that my mind wanders to quite often, explained and realised in a story. If I daydream for too long, sometimes my brain whispers what if I actually died just now, or last night in my sleep, or on my way to work... what if I can only experience and remember the through-line of events in which I survive each and every moment? I recognised this feeling in Mrs Elm's description of the multiverse:
"You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library."
It is hard to ignore the conflicting nature of the response to this book. Since reading it I have come to find just how strongly some people dislike it (mostly younger people) as well as love it. It surprised me a lot... until I addressed within myself that some elements of the story and the writing did leave me with an uncomfortable feeling. I suppose it is risky material, but from an author who is open with his own grappling with mental health there's no real reason to expect that element to feel inauthentic or incomplete.
"Contrary to the fantastical premise, the novel turns out to be a celebration of the ordinary: ordinary revelations, ordinary people, and the infinity of worlds seeded in ordinary choices." Natasha Pulley, The Guardian. Aug 2020
I'll try to sum up this problem (with only the perspective that my own experiences can give me). Matt Haig has a beautiful way of talking about living and its purpose. For a person like myself, who has never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder but has experienced, like most people, the feeling of failure and of loneliness, this novel is such a comforting read and would make a bad day feel better. I have had moments where I've fallen out of love with life a little, periods of low moods, feelings of regret and it's true that a better mindset can fix that pretty swiftly. That is what this novel said to me. It does this by, as Natasha Pulley says in the above quote, encouraging you to fall in love with the ordinary aspects of life and by allowing you to follow along on Nora's psychological journey back to happiness. However, for those who resonate more with Nora's experience with suicidal depression, it may have missed the mark; after all a mental illness does not have a magic fix button. The mindset that Haig installs is that we must not live life with regret, that "the only way to learn is to live,” and that living is always the answer. And for the majority of the novel, I feel like that did achieve what it intended. However the ending of the novel is where I found trouble (as did others it seems).
"The only way to learn is to live."
It is just unavoidable now.
Following Nora's psychological journey through her alternate lives addressing her regrets led me to think subconsciously about how on earth this might end. The messaging about what is most important in life and how best to live life seemed to slowly build and I was anticipating a huge and nuanced hit home. People have said that the ending was predictable. I’m not so sure, as I expected more. Nora finally finds a life that makes her happy, but eventually is still pulled back into the library which starts to crumble all around her. With the help of Mrs Elm she fights to get back to her root life and finds herself back in her apartment, having survived her suicide attempt this time. It has an almost It's A Wonderful Life feel; Nora gets a real second chance at life. It's obviously relieving to see the protagonist survive at the end but ... there really are no real consequences to her very real suicide attempt. She gets a text back from her friend, reunites with her brother and dives back into life unscathed. And I know there is a message there about it being possible for life to get better. And a success story is maybe the only option. But, in this way, it suggests that a better mindset is like a magic wand for mental illness. Nora appears to wake up and act as normal after a suicide attempt which ultimately, when closing the book, didn’t feel quite right. This is not what we know of mental illness. It's not a straight road, it might take seeking out medical help—it's certainly not just a matter of not trying hard enough. Perhaps the fantastical elements of the novel didn’t facilitate a realistic guide for battling mental health disorders no matter how much Matt Haig tried.
The Midnight Library was not perfect but it was such a wonderfully comforting read. The novel's elements of fantasy were a real delight, but its core messaging felt like a misfire. I do also agree that sometimes Nora's 'epiphanies', shall we say, felt a little simple and predictable. But. Most of all. After reading the book and scouring the internet for research, I heard nothing but good things about Matt Haig’s non-fiction and this whole experience has made me really want to try out his self-help books!