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  • Ninay Desai

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Have you ever wondered how your life would’ve turned out if you’d done a few things differently? Pursued a degree in a different subject in college or joined that start-up with your friend’s cousin or even attended a colleague’s birthday celebration that Thursday night? And what if you had the chance to right a wrong or erase a regret? I can’t answer for you but I am fascinated not just with righting wrongs (even though righted wrongs often come with their own can of worms) but how a different choice can divert us to a whole new direction. And in that sense, the smaller choices interest me more because they are often least thought of and yet they could end up changing your life, for better or worse, without you ever suspecting it.

A copy of Matt Haig's The Midnight Library lies on a midnight blue cloth with its folds catching the light, making it glisten. A string of tiny twinkly lights is strewn around the book.

That’s partly what The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is about. Published in 2020, this is a novel about the decisions we make and how every choice we are offered is both a fruit of previous choices but also a seed for future possibilities. Except one never knows which seed will sprout which plant. Our greatest triumphs can potentially lead to disasters while the worst of times can be fertile ground for a better life. Speaking of seeds, that’s also the name of the protagonist of The Midnight Library - Nora Seed.

We meet Nora on an exceptionally awful day in her life. Everything appears to be collapsing around her. Her cat, Voltaire dies and she loses her job. With her parents dead, her brother estranged and her best friend incommunicado in Australia, there is no one she can turn to. It’s a dreary night making her question her reasons for living. Unfortunately, she comes up wanting. And so, she decides to end it all. This is no great shock to us as readers because the opening line of the novel is,

“Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.”

Clearly, the author, Matt Haig wanted us to see it coming. It’s all part of the set-up for the novel's central concept which is the Midnight Library- a place suspended between life and death, where the clock is perpetually striking midnight. The Midnight Library is filled with books till the eye can see. An infinity of books with different stories but a single protagonist – Nora Seed. These are the infinite lives of Nora, created every time she makes a choice, big or small. The books are portals to all the lives a version of her is currently living in an alternate universe and Nora could choose to parachute into any one of them and live that life forever.

The Midnight Library sets up a tantalising proposition that affords Nora the unimaginably rare opportunity to figure out the answers to the ‘what if’ questions that many of us ponder but will never be able to answer. It doesn’t surprise me that this novel is a bestseller because it taps into human psychology, the awe-inspiring yet just out-of-grasp possibilities of the Universe and eventually leaves us with an uplifting message of even small deeds possessing meaning. As the librarian of the The Midnight Library, Mrs Elm tells Nora over a game of chess,

“And even if you were a pawn - maybe we all are - then you should remember that a pawn is the most magical piece of all. It might look small and ordinary but it isn't. because a pawn is never just a pawn. A pawn is a queen-in-waiting. All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. One square after another. And you can get to the other side and unlock all kinds of power.”

Through the many versions of Nora’s life that form the bulk of The Midnight Library, the theme that is writ large is that of the loneliness of modern, urban life and that true connection has little to do with success, money or even network connectivity! But it does have a lot to do with effort.

Given that the protagonist, Nora studied philosophy in college, Haig peppers the novel with pithy quotes and references to Gestalt psychology which is basically about how the brain always wants to simplify stuff into recognisable patterns even if it has to fill in the blanks a bit in order to create the pattern. It’s like when you perceive the shape of a rabbit in a passing cloud.

For the even more scientifically-oriented or imaginatively-challenged, Haig provides us with a scientific basis for the existence of the Midnight Library. Hint: there are theories of parallel universes and the concepts of quantum indeterminacy involved. Though Haig is smart to keep this to the minimum – enough to satisfy the physics enthusiasts without alienating the folks who’re here for the story.

Matt Haig’s style lends itself to a yarn spun simply but very engagingly even with a protagonist who is utterly lost and unmotivated. I don’t mean that as a jibe at Nora. We’re invited into a very trying time in her life and there’s something about her dismay, regret and ‘pity party for one’ demeanour that reminds us all of having been there at some point in our lives.

At the heart of The Midnight Library lies the message that there are silver linings to even the darkest of clouds and how, even at our lowest and dullest, we could be someone’s silver lining even if we don’t see how. As Henry David Thoreau wrote and Matt Haig quotes,

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

The Midnight Library is a charming little book to curl up with, reminding us what we forget most often in a world that glorifies the flashy. As JRR Tolkien, the legendary author of The Lord of the Rings series put it,

“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”

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I like this book review & will definitely check out the book.. since one may come across a situation that one want for ourselves too. 📖

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai

Do check it out and leave us a comment. :-) Cheers!

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