The Midnight Library
Canongate, 13 August 2020
Available as: HB, 304pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via Netgalley
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of The Midnight Library via NetGalley.
Nora Seed, an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in the very ordinary town of Bedford, is in despair. ('Only the sertraline stopped her crying'). She has many regrets. She's lost her job, walked away from her own wedding, and rejected both success in a band and as a competitive swimmer ('She'd been the fastest fourteen-year old girl in the country at breaststroke...'). Now she decides to end her life but she finds it isn't that simple.
I loved the idea of this book as soon as I heard about it - a dying woman who, rather than vanishing into oblivion, finds herself in an in-between place, an infinite library where her possible lives are filed and she has the opportunity to consider what might have. No, it's not a new idea - it brought to mind the film A Matter of Life and Death, and even the ancient idea of Purgatory - but I think the fact it seems familiar just shows how intriguing, how compelling it really is. We'd all like, I think, the chance to sift over what-might-have beens, to look for The Moment when it all changed - and what better way than in a library?
The setup gives Haigh an opening to spin many stories. Nora finds herself sampling lives, dropped into the middle of things, alternative existences she might have lived if she'd gone a different way. It's fascinating but also panic inducing - she isn't the "her" of the alternate, she's still very much the "her" of her "root life" and hasn't lived as, say, the Olympic champion or the rock goddess. Yet she's still dropped in the deep end, about to give a motivational speech to a conference or the encore to a concert in sweaty, glittery San Paulo. Even in the most mundane of existences she might emerge from the Library out and about and not know where home is, or what job she does. This succession of existences is calculated to bring out the imposter syndrome in all of us, making even the most outwardly successful lives that Nora assumes into stressy, high-heartrate episodes and creating a sense of unease, of imitation, of fakery as though Nora is, literally, an interloper to herself.
Against this unsettling background, the book, as you'd expect, allows Nora a level of self-analysis, of coming to terms with past events. And as you might expect, Nora comes to understand that many of those regrets are misplaced - to know all is to forgive all, including oneself, and the added insight allowed by running through the alternates (combined with a teeny bit of omniscience from her guide through the library, her old school librarian Mrs Elm) lets her come to terms with a lot of past baggage. (No details, that would be too spoilery). Some authors might leave it there, with a relatively predictable message about acceptance - but Haig has, I'd say, a much deeper understanding and does much more than give us a succession of flickering lives for Nora from which she can choose the best.
Rather, as we see her friends, family and associates through the eyes of all the different Noras - women who have achieved, or not achieved different things and who therefore have very different outlooks and experiences. We get a more rounded picture of everyone, because all those people, too, are living different lives for each Nora. So there's her beloved, estranged gay brother, Joe, who in some timelines is alive, some dead. The father who pushed her into swimming, as a compensation for his own loss. Her mother, who 'treated her like a mistake in need of correction'. Ravi, her brother's best friend who's never forgiven her for pulling the plug on the band and trapping him in Bedford - a town which 'was a conveyor belt of despair' (ouch). Dan, her sometimes-husband (and sometimes not).
All of these characters gradually reveal themselves, with little digressions into their own pasts and families. They are often different from timeline to timeline but also, always the same. They impact on Nora and she impacts on them. It's not as simple and as trite as saying, oooh, look, Nora. Look at what happens without you, what those around you lose. Instead, we get a complex, many sided and always compassionate view of a whole group of people, the different (and overlapping) narratives making this book a sort of literal hologram, a dense and four dimensional rendering of all its characters. It's a rich, enjoyable reading experience with many moments of sad - or happy - recognition.
It's also vividly, gorgeously written. At a particularly low point, when she seems to have no friends, Nora sees herself as 'antimatter, with added self-pity'. She reflects on how 'happy moments can turn into pain, given time' and considers her existence to be 'incomplete living and incomplete dying'. There's a sense - which we've all had I think though hopefully, most of us rarely and not for long - of separation, of distancing from life, a thing which, as I have said, is only heightened by Nora's serial immersion into versions of herself which aren't her. I have rarely seen as compelling a realisation of a character, or such sharp writing. And there is a great deal of humour here too ('In this life, she clearly had no taste.' 'Her dad belonged in a world of landlines') as well as an overall fascination with life, and with the wider world as seen by the various Noras: the whales off the coast of Australia, the raging fires around LA, which recur and recur. Self absorbed and inward-looking this is not.
In short, compelling, compassionate and a great read. I would recommend.
For more information about The Midnight Library, see the publisher's website here.