Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Matt Haig writes the sort of books that get picked up for movies starring Benedict Cumberbatch (How to Stop Time is one, though still in development). The Midnight Library is the first I’ve read, but looking at his back catalogue, I can see the potential for screen adaptations in the stories he comes up with. They look original, life affirming, sometimes romantic and with a bit of philosophy thrown in. There’s that category, Speculative Fiction which might put you off if you’re not into sci-fi or fantasy. But on the other hand, this could be the Spec-Fic for you.

The Midnight Library is the story of Nora, once a promising young swimmer who, if her dad’d had his way, would have gone on to Olympic glory. She could have been a rock star too, if she hadn’t pulled out of her brother’s band, causing a rift between them that has continued to this day. Her life could have included a career in glaciology, helping save the planet with her studies on Arctic sea ice, or an academic career in philosophy. But somehow, at 35, Nora has hit rock bottom, losing her music store job, missing family and far-away friends and living in a grim flat in Bedford..

When her cat dies suddenly, Nora feels she is so worthless she tries to kill herself, but wakes up in the Midnight Library instead. Here, the librarian is Mrs Elm, a kindly figure Nora remembers from school, who shows Nora the Book of Regrets, and gives her the chance to start again, picking alternative life paths until she finds the one she wants to live. Each segment shows Nora in a new life story, but being dropped into a different life at the age of 35 and having to figure out what she has to do adds some interesting tension. Who are these people, she wonders, and what do I next?

The Midnight Library plays with the idea that if we could live our life again, what would we decide to do differently. Would we be happier? More fulfilled? It is peppered with very quotable quotations – Nora didn’t study philosophy at uni for nothing – and as such the book seems to be full of wisdom. When you’ve got to the end, you might find yourself thinking about your own life and its crossroads and turning points. The ultimate in personalised Spec-Fic, perhaps.

As Thoreau wrote, ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’ 

It’s a fun read though – like Nora, you don’t easily pick what will happen next – and there’s a smattering of humour. Though you realise fairly early on that there’s a moral to the novel, not your usual fictional resolution. I was at a writer’s conference recently when the presenter on novel structure reacted adversely to the suggestion that a novel should have a moral. But this one does and somehow avoids being too icky – though some might disagree.

I wouldn’t like to read a book like The Midnight Library too often. It’s a bit gimmicky and too many stories with philosophical meanderings would lessen the effect. However, sometimes a book like this is just the ticket and could be a tonic if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, or to spark a lively book group discussion. I can’t quite bring myself to give the novel a four, so it’s a three-and-a-half read from me.

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