Matt Haig really pumps books out. Fiction, non-fiction, adult, children’s – he’s done it all, twenty-six times over (by my count). This is the first of his I’ve read, and it’s one of his most popular: The Midnight Library. It came out in August 2020, when we were all descending into madness because… well, you know. We all really needed a fantasy-inspired story about choosing life.
The Midnight Library – the book and this review – warrants some BIG TIME trigger warnings. So, here they are, up front: watch out for death/suicide, mental illness, death of/cruelty towards animals.
If you’re still with me, here we go: the story follows 35-year-old Nora, a British woman having a really rough week. Her cat dies, she loses her job, her neighbour hires someone to help him out so he doesn’t need her anymore, and it all piles on top of a lifetime of regrets and chances not taken. She decides to take her own life…
… but, hovering somewhere between Here and The Afterlife, she ends up in the library. The Midnight Library. Her childhood librarian guides her through the stacks, an infinite number of books, each representing a life that Nora could have had. Before she Moves On, Nora has the chance to “try” as many lives as she wants, simply by pulling the book that represents it from the shelf.
The opening chapters of The Midnight Library are a perfect demonstration of how we’re all just an unfortunate event or two away from complete crisis. I really liked that aspect, and also the short chapters (some are just a sentence or a paragraph long), which make for quick and easy reading.
It’s a clumsy metaphor, though – even if it is a comforting one for bookish types. And the plot is a little… linear. I promise you, there are no surprises or shock twists waiting for you in The Midnight Library. It’s as predictable as an after-school special. Even the exposition is boringly straightforward: Mrs Elm, the librarian, lays it all out for Nora (and the reader), as often as she needs, straight as an arrow.
After trying all the lives she can think of – marrying the fiance she left at the altar, working as a glaciologist in the Arctic, working the inspirational speaker circuit after a career as a champion swimmer, playing sold-out stadiums as a rock star, making an honest living as a vineyard owner – Nora… makes exactly the choice you’d expect her to make. Seriously, imagine the most obvious and saccharine way The Midnight Library could end, and you’ve got it. It’s basically an updated version of The Wizard Of Oz or It’s A Wonderful Life.
Even if I hadn’t known going in when The Midnight Library was published, I would’ve *known* it was a pandemic novel. If the themes and ending weren’t enough to clue me in, there’s the dedication (“To all the health workers. And the care workers. Thank you.”). I suppose, looking back, we all needed something a bit sweet and optimistic to get us through a tough time – but I’m not sure the story holds up now that the initial devastation has passed.
“Life is worth living! It’s never too late!” is a nice sentiment, but I didn’t love the overall message of The Midnight Library. It read to me like: “if you’re just grateful and kind and hopeful, you’ll be able to think yourself out of depression and suicidality!”. Despite the fact that you’ve lost your job, your parents are dead, your cat got hit by a car, you have no support system, and you clearly have some unresolved mental health issues going on? Sure, Jan.
Oh, and one last gripe: Haig works in a lot of watered-down philosophy by making Nora a philosophy grad. It’s clumsy and obvious and annoyed me all the way through The Midnight Library.
Alright, and now I’m going to stop being a Negative Nancy! Yes, it was too simple and sweet for me, but The Midnight Library was highly readable and a fun thought experiment. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who gave it five stars on Goodreads and gushed about it to friends on Zoom.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Midnight Library:
- “Like other reviewers, I thought the premise was interesting. However, the ending is predictable and I found myself actually rolling my eyes while reading the last few pages. Appreciate the beauty in the life you already have. We get it. I prefer the beauty of subtlety.” – K. Short
- “If you can guess where this book is going in the first 30 pages, congratulations, you’re slightly above the comprehension level of an inebriated oyster. I kept reading in an attempt to reconcile the text with the praise this book has received, and, much like the endless streams of philosophical nonsense you’ll have to endure before the last page, came up short. Philosophy isn’t the search for answers. It’s the search for more questions, and often only pointless ones. (Goodness Mr Thoreau, I guess perspective really does matter! I’ll start seeing instead of looking right away!) Unless you’ve never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” or any of that film’s tired and trite imitators, this book will be a dull, repetitive experience.” – spaceflounder
- “To the reviewers who complained because their physical copies of the book were missing pages – count your blessings!” – Kandy Witte