In ‘The Midnight Library,’ Books Offer Transport to Different Lives

By Matt Haig

Few fantasies are more enduring than the idea that there might be a second chance at a life already lived, some sort of magical reset in which mistakes can be erased, regrets addressed, choices altered. This deep desire for a different life, or for more lives than just the one, is at the heart of any number of stories — movies like “Groundhog Day,” “Sliding Doors” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”; television shows like “Sliders” and “Quantum Leap”; wonderful novels like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” Andrew Sean Greer’s “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells,” Jo Walton’s “My Real Children” and many others. Into this ever-popular genre, Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” is a welcome addition.

Haig’s central character is 35-year-old Nora Seed. Nora is a woman with many gifts and few accomplishments. She’s estranged from her only living relative, an older brother, and also distant from her only close friend both emotionally and geographically. She had “always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation.” In short order, in a life already littered with remorse, she loses both her job and her beloved cat, Voltaire. “As she stared at Voltaire’s still and peaceful expression — that total absence of pain — there was an inescapable feeling brewing in the darkness. Envy.”

In Haig’s book, the mechanism through which transmigration takes place is the Midnight Library of the title. This structure occupies a magical space between life and death. Its facade replicates an ordinary library, shelves with books, but on an infinite scale.

The librarian is very wise, as librarians tend to be. She explains to Nora that every book on the shelves is a doorway into a different life. Only one book is an exception to this, “The Book of Regrets,” a volume so heavy and toxic it’s dangerous for Nora to read more than a few lines.

By the time Nora arrives at the Midnight Library, the reader has already learned what her chief regrets are. Each of these now functions in the plot as a kind of promissory note; we expect to experience the lives in which these particular regrets are addressed and, in this, we are not disappointed. But the repercussions of eliminating each regret often surprise Nora. Choices are not the same as outcomes, the librarian warns her.

The librarian encourages Nora to sample a variety of texts, promising that as soon as Nora feels dissatisfied with a new life, she’ll find herself back in the library, ready to have another go. This may happen after only a few moments or months might pass. All this while, time in the library is at a standstill. An infinite number of other lives beckon.

Nora is initially reluctant — life is just what she didn’t want more of — but the librarian is firm. Why else would you be here? she asks. So Nora opens her first book.

By the end, she’ll have opened a great many more. Haig describes some of Nora’s provisional lives in detail. Others last only as long as a sentence: “In one life she only ate toast.” Suspense comes from the fact that Nora is dropped in midstream, with no preparation. She always remembers her original life — her root life — so she always has that point of comparison. But she knows nothing of the life she’s just entered. Often she must look for herself online, read her social media accounts, in order to know who she is. More than once she finds herself performing before large crowds, speaking on a subject in which she has no background or expected to sing a song some other Nora recorded, but this one has never heard before. More than once, she’s in a sexual relationship with a man she doesn’t know or mother to children she’s never met.

A small cast of characters reappears in many of Nora’s lives. Her brother, her parents, her best friend are almost always present. She sometimes crosses paths with a man she came close to marrying. As she plays through her own myriad possibilities, the impact of her choices on each of these characters is also profound; their lives are as altered by Nora’s decisions as her own. Even peripheral characters from her root life are transformed.

As in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” Nora appears to be the X factor in all these changes. The supporting cast is also making different choices, but these are largely posited as responses to Nora’s own altered actions. Only Nora’s choices feel determinative.

The issue of the many Noras temporarily displaced from their own root lives is somewhat troubling. Where do they go in the interim? If/when Nora finds the life in which she will stay, what will become of the Nora whose life that actually is? Answers are hinted at, but the issue is not directly addressed. The conundrum at the heart of the book is the implication that our Nora is the real Nora and the other lives all variations on that first life, the root life, rather than equally valuable universes filled with equally valuable people. In the infinity of the multiverse, surely there are other Noras also trying on our Nora’s life from time to time, displacing her as they do so. The universe is full of infinite possibility, but the story here remains tightly focused on the internal life of a single woman and all her might-have-beens.

It can be hard to keep a reader’s energy invested in a depressed and somewhat listless character, but Nora is smart and observant; she remains good company. She’s studied philosophy and has a particular affection for the American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The book is all the richer, as any book would be, for the inclusion of several of his quotes: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams” and “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

There is likewise a danger that such a recursive plotline will tire the reader. But here, too, the book succeeds. At just the right moment, not too soon and not too late, Nora makes her final decisive move, taking us into the last section of the book. The ending is satisfying but not surprising. By the time it comes, in fact, only one choice still seems possible.

The narrative throughout has a slightly old-fashioned feel, like a bedtime story. It’s an absorbing but comfortable read, imaginative in the details if familiar in its outline. The invention of the library as the machinery through which different lives can be accessed is sure to please readers and has the advantage of being both magical and factual. Every library is a liminal space; the Midnight Library is different in scale, but not kind. And a vision of limitless possibility, of new roads taken, of new lives lived, of a whole different world available to us somehow, somewhere, might be exactly what’s wanted in these troubled and troubling times.

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