CW: depression, suicide
What if you discovered that between life and death there was a library? On the shelves are an infinite number of books. Contained within the pages is a life you could have lived. What’s the first regret you would undo?
This is the question posed to the protagonist of Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed. Nora is a 35-year-old woman whose life didn’t go the way she wanted. There had been many dreams and all of them failed to manifest into reality. Then a tragedy close to home kickstarts a string of events that lead to Nora’s final decision: to die.
But before she can get her wish, her old school librarian invites her to browse the collection of lives she could have lived. Within each is another Nora Seed she could have been if she had made different decisions. It is here where Nora’s journey to find the perfect life begins.
Positive Mental Health Representation
If you follow Matt Haig on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll know Haig to be a great mental health advocate. His posts help to normalise discussions around mental illness and promote positive actions that can be taken to help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
He also wrote the comforting and inspiring Reasons to Stay Alive, which I also recommend.
Therefore, Haig has both lived experience of anxiety and depression, and is an active member of the mental health advocacy community. This makes him well-placed to write about mental illness that is so integral to the narrative.
Stigmas around mental illness are rife within literature and media, but The Midnight Library presents a realistic and empowering representation of depression. Suicide may be the inciting incident of Nora’s story, but her character is never defined by her mental illness. The beauty of infinite Noras is that we get a character-focused story that allows plenty of room for depth.
The Book of Regrets
Key to the plot is the one book in the Midnight Library that is different from the others: The Book of Regrets. Every chapter is a different year of Nora’s life, and every chapter contains a long list of regrets. It’s a hefty book.
As is the case with regrets, some are small whilst others are large.
‘I regret not staying in The Labyrinths, because I let down my brother.’ ‘I regret not staying in The Labyrinths, because I let down myself.’ ‘I regret not doing more for the environment.’ ‘I regret the time I spent on social media.’ ‘I regret not going to Australia with Izzy.’ ‘I regret not having more fun when I was younger.’ ‘I regret all those arguments with Dad.’ ‘I regret not working with animals.’ ‘I regret not doing Geology at University instead of Philosophy.’ ‘I regret not learning how to be a happier person.’ ‘I regret feeling so much guilt.’
That’s only about half of the passage, and if that already feels overwhelming then that’s because it is. The fact that all these regrets are squeezed into a single paragraph does an excellent job of illustrating the claustrophobic feeling of regret.
This was the moment for me when I became personally connected to Nora’s journey. Just as she was reading her own Book of Regrets, I began to imagine what I’d be reading if I were in her shoes.
Our regrets create parallel universes we visit in our heads. I’m a daydreamer by nature, and I quite often visit the myriad of lives I could be living if I had made different choices. What if I had auditioned for more theatre shows whilst at uni? What if I had gone on that date during my second year? What if I had stuck with my job rather than quit?
Haig’s writing makes you feel the weight of regret. But just as Nora’s Book of Regrets becomes lighter, so does yours.
Nora’s story invites introspection, and I felt I came to many of the same realisations at the same time Nora did. Through Nora, I believe I’ve developed a better perspective of myself and life, which is more than I could have asked from this book.
Small Chapters, Big Ideas
If you’re like me and don’t like to pause in the middle of a chapter, this book is perfect. Short chapters make for compelling reading, because when you ask: do I have time for another chapter? The answer is always yes.
But more importantly, the structure of the novel gives each chapter a specific focus, which dissuades your eyes from glazing over. Some chapters are a single page and centre on an emotion or epiphany. Breaking from the narrative to place emphasis on a specific moment is an effective storytelling device, which gives grand ideas the space to breathe and allows the reader to sit with the thought for a moment without fearing they’ll lose their place in the story.
It also makes it easier to find specific passages when you want to refer back to them.
I also just love chapter headings for some reason. The more creative the better, too.
Quotes You’ll Want to Remember
Some books have passages so perfect, you’ll want to engrave each letter into your memory. If you’re the type of person who reads with a highlighter in one hand, then your copy of The Midnight Library is going to be very colourful by the time you finish reading.
Haig’s prose ranges from the poetic to the profound, and sometimes both. Whether it’s an affirmation that inspires you to hope or a relatable emotion beautifully described, there’ll be pages you want to earmark.
Things Must Always End and Sometimes You See It Coming
The possibilities might be endless, but a story never can be. There must always be a resolution, and you can probably predict how this one ends.
Nora’s goal that drives her through these infinite lives is to find the “perfect life.” If she finds that one life that makes her perfectly happy then she can stay in that one. She’ll forget her root life and the Midnight Library that got her there. She will become the Nora she always wanted to be.
In her search for that life, she becomes a drifter. Or “slider”, as it is referred in the novel. The journey is fun and full of surprises, many of which you won’t see coming. Much like Nora, the consistent novelty of each new life will be so thrilling you can’t be sure you truly want it to end. But you know the life she’s going to inevitably pick.
However, I don’t think there could have been any other ending. And whilst endings are important, this is a great example of a novel that’s all about the journey. And this is a journey you should go on.
A Great Addition to Your Library
Whether as an addition to your personal book collection or a recommendation for your local library, this is a book worth your time. Nora’s a protagonist you’ll love, and her journey will encourage you to rethink your regrets and have you yearning for life: the bad moments but especially the beautiful.