REVIEW: The Midnight Library, By Matt Haig

Nora has a choice when she enters the Midnight Library after her attempted suicide: to die or to live her unlived lives. The librarian Mrs Elms organises her options of rock star, swimmer and pub landlady amongst others which each in their way appear to initially to be better than the one she’s just opted out of as all were possible but rejected at critical moments in her life. Depressed, fired from her job, dumping her fiancée and with no self-worth she retreats to her room to end it all.

Is she really in a kind of purgatory or is she dreaming of all the lives she could have had if she had made a different choice at pivotal times? There was her decision to give up swimming as a teenager due to children calling her names and the relentless pressure put on her by her dad. The friend who wanted her to go to Australia with her to start a new life or the boyfriend whose dream it was for them to run a country pub. Each one was flawed in some way once she stepped into what appeared at first to be a perfect alternative life. Haig’s fantasy novel The Midnight Library is both a morality tale, a homespun philosophy about being yourself, and an examination of how our mental health is affected by our childhood, parents, school and things that happen – and by our core personality.

One of Nora’s problems was the influence of key people in her life who wanted her to be the main prop in their life while she was pulled from one idea to another never able to decide what she really wanted. Each one a dream, each one a fantasy – and not always her fantasy.

It’s not a new idea – where on the cusp of death the life of the protagonist is held up for examination. In It’s A Wonderful Life (the 1946 Frank Capra movie) George Bailey is given the choice as life closes in on him – to live and find salvation with his family and friends or to die a failure. Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is shown his past, present and future by a ghostly visitation – again a fantasy novel that allows the central figure to glimpse into a different life while Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life also echoes Matt Haig’s theme of alternative life choices and outcomes.

It’s a theme we can all relate to. Should we have not entered that room at a party and met our future partner? Failed to turn up for a job interview which would have meant leaving home? Or failed to get the grades at school to gain entry to college? Or a different college? The possibilities are endless as Nora discovers.

A straightforward narrative takes us through the various experiences and her exchanges with Mrs Elms with no real sub-plots but rather an unravelling of the reasons why Nora was depressed and why her life turned out up to the point of the opening page of the story.

Whimsical and easy to read with much humour and stand out moments that we all recognise: the unreliable flatmate, the dysfunctional family, teenage body issues and people who don’t get irony – it’s easy to see why it’s been a popular read. And it’s a circular story which as all fables do it has a message which for Nora is both redemptive and life affirming.

Harry Mottram

The novel was chosen for this month’s read by the Axbridge Book club members.

For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit and follow him on all social media sites.