Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library

Are we living our best lives? If we could choose another version of reality and hop into that other us, would we be happier or more fulfilled or successful or are we ultimately bound to continue in the life we have now and strive to make it into our best possible existence?

Living, as we do, in an age of self-obsession and introspective self-assessment; it isn’t hard to see why this book has received a lot of media coverage and has been chosen for so many book club lists recently. Lockdown forced many of us to re-evaluate where we are and what we do and whether we were happy with our lot or secretly craving another way of existing. There is also a huge mental health ‘crisis’ or awakening depending on your viewpoint sweeping through society which inter-connects with the themes in this book and makes it an interesting springboard for wider discussion.

Nora, the protagonist, is about to kill herself because her life seems devoid of anything worth living for. Between life and death, she discovers a library in her mind; stocked with an infinite number of books which represent all the other versions of herself that she could have been depending on the choices she made and all the other lives she could have lived in parallel realities.

Guided by her old school librarian, Mrs Elm, she must confront the ‘Book of Regrets’ which she has filled up during the course of her first thirty-five years and then by a process of experiencing the alternative realities in each book, she must learn to re-evaluate her regrets and find her best life before time runs out.

Nora’s regrets weigh her down to the point of atrophy because she has spent a lot of time alone or in dysfunctional relationships and has interpreted other people’s reactions as a judgement on her own abilities or worth – a sentiment that many of us can relate to! However, In order to really engage with Nora’s angst, we need to empathise with her but her character is also a cipher for exploring our own internal world. In many ways she is ‘Curley’s Wife’ in ‘Of Mice and Men – a plot device rather than a character and that can make it hard to engage with her enough care about the ultimate outcome of the storyline.

At some point, whilst reading Nora’s stream of consciousness, the reader will think ‘Is it really that bad?’ Nora’s life hasn’t been ravaged by war or destroyed by disease. She had a controlling parent who died when she was still very young so she was never able to resolve her relationship with them and suffered the usual losses that most of us encounter through our journey. Her long-term boyfriend turned out to be self-obsessed and indifferent to her own personal journey; her brother drifted away from her and her early dreams of either becoming an Olympic swimming champion or member of a rock band dissolved, as most people’s do, into the mundanity of earning a crust to keep a roof over our heads.

Perhaps Nora is symbolic of the faint ‘dis-ease’ of modern life – a nebulous unhappiness about what we might have achieved, given that we aren’t fighting the French in a hundred years war of attrition or facing famine because our crops failed again. We are burdened with ‘glorious purpose’, as Loki might say, but purpose to achieve what exactly?

Fame, fortune, financial security? To raise a family that stays together and nurture the next generation to become mentally resilient, compassionate, eco-friendly and productive units in society? Women, in particular, are told we can ‘have it all’ by the media yet for so many of us, there is a void when we try to fill that ‘ALL’ shaped box with something meaningful because we are overloaded and fatigued by the 24/7 rolling life that babbles away around us along with the relentless doom-filled news channel.

Apathy is as much a by-product of sensory and emotional overload as under-stimulation. Matt Haig asks us to empathise with Nora’s emptiness yet for many of us, her lifestyle feels full of room for the things we can’t do. Loneliness is crushing but so is the frantic struggle to balance too many duties and responsibilities and she can’t even make a one-hour a week piano lesson or get to her job on time when she’s only looking after a cat (badly, as it turns out).

The ‘Quantum Leap’ jumping between lives is interesting up to a point – here she is successful in her career but driven and lonely; here she is living her partner’s dream rather than her own or experiencing quasi-motherhood and beginning to feel what it might be like to care more about another living soul than herself but it starts to become rather predictable and repetitive – just like life – when you see that there are always downsides to every existence. You get fame but not personal fulfilment; you get money but no time to enjoy it or a family but there’s still a hole at the heart of you that they can’t fill.

Nora’s problem is that she takes herself into each new life – not the person she is in that other reality but just the same person who can’t cope with being alive and so the resolution to the climatic moment when we finally reach it feels rather anti-climatic and unresolved. Ultimately, we are who we are and must make the best of it and it is only through unrelenting toil and incremental personal growth that we can make our own ‘best life’ and aim for contentment.

It remains statistically unlikely that we will win the lottery or marry a film star or write a great novel or any of those other pipe dreams that people nurse to overcome the crushing realisation that when you said you wanted to become an astronaut at school and your teacher nodded, they were just nodding and not endorsing that as a genuine possibility!

The author repeats several times that we do not have to understand how to live, just to live. Experience is the thing rather than theorising about it or bullet journaling it or analysing it. Get in there and get messy while you are still a sentient, living organism that can feel and touch and use your senses to respond to the world. It reminds me of ‘Why Don’t You?’ the 70’s TV show that I used to watch as a bored kid during the holidays – the message was stop watching the show and go outside and do something more interesting instead – a challenging concept to sell to the programme commissioner at the time but if only they had glimpsed the future of childhood where so many hours would be spent creating avatars to act out virtual adventures on screen, they might have run screaming from the studios.

In comparison, the book’s message seems to be, stop the introspective navel-gazing and the psychoanalysis and get on with living while you can, which is of course good advice up to the point when you look back and see that you’ve filled up the void with stuff or experiences or work but still feel empty at your core.

Scientists say that you can fool yourself into feeling happy by smiling because it releases chemical endorphins in the brain that make us feel better. They are experimenting with giving laughing gas to patients suffering from depression because the human body can be fooled into a state of ‘happiness’ via external stimuli. There’s something deeply depressing about that! Like putting a mirror in the Budgie’s cage to prevent it feeling lonely or chewing your meals slowly to stop hunger cravings. I can’t help feeling that if you have to trick yourself into feeling happy that doesn’t say much for human existence which really brings us back to the meaning of life and all that.

Are we here to push our DNA one coil further up the beach before we die or to produce something beautiful that will out-live us? Are we here to make the planet a better place through our efforts or to fight for a cause or a nation or a god or a philosophy? What will any of it count for when our sun implodes and drags the whole universe with it back to the moment of the ‘big bang’ and everything we have ever learnt or made or felt is re-wound to a single point of energy?

Like many philosophical discussions, it’s all been great fun but you’ve come full-circle and still don’t know the answer to the question that was originally posed.

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