Skip to main content

The Midnight Library


The Midnight Library

Matt Haig has achieved a reputation as a keen wordsmith and purveyor of the human condition. In THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, his latest novel, he crosses over into the realm of existentialism. By way of metaphor, he takes a library and supposes that each book on its many stacks contains an alternate version of an individual’s life. Grab a volume, and you open up a completely new reality, giving the reader the opportunity to see “what might have been” if different choices had been made. Only through the realm of fiction can we experience a gift like this, and Haig brings it to us in spades.

“I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.” These words are from Nora Seed’s favorite poet, the great Sylvia Plath. In fact, I believe this quote had some influence on Haig because it clearly spells out the opportunity that Nora is allowed to take advantage of here.

"THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY reads like a dream and provides so much joy and wonder that you will not want it to end."

Nora is down on her luck and has had a very bad run of things lately. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY opens with the line “Nineteen years before she decided to die…” Like George Bailey in the classic film It's a Wonderful Life, just when the lead character is about to throw away the gift of life, someone comes along to offer them a glimpse at a different reality before they decide whether or not to go through with the suicidal act. In Nora’s case, she is given several different glimpses at what her life could have been to the point where she can decide which is the right path for her.

Haig’s protagonist lives alone, has no significant other in her life or friends to speak of, and her closest living family member --- her brother, Joe --- is on the outs with her. On top of that, her depression and somber attitude have now cost her a job at the music shop. At this point, Nora figures that the world would be a better place without her and no one would even miss her. As she leaves the music shop, she wishes that there was nothing but doors in front of her that she could walk through, one by one, leaving everyone and everything behind.

Nora gets so far as to write her suicide note when she is shrouded in a heavy mist. Once it lifts, she finds herself in a library, the same place where she spent endless hours as a child dreaming and being creative. Her friend and favorite chess partner is the librarian, Mrs. Elm, who should be long gone and the library left to the past. Mrs. Elm informs Nora that this is the Midnight Library. Here she will be able to experience different versions of herself and discover the answers to all the “what if” questions she may have ever posed to herself during her lifetime.

As various volumes are pulled from the shelves under Mrs. Elm's instructions, Nora gets to physically leave her present reality and try each one on for size. At one point in her life, her parents wanted her to try out for the Olympics because she was an expert swimmer. She will have the opportunity to experience not only that, but also what life would have looked like for her as a confident ex-Olympian on the book-touring circuit. She also will get to experience life with her ex-boyfriend had they bought the pub they had once discussed purchasing. On the other end of the spectrum, Nora will have the chance to live a life with her fantasy lover, who she never had the guts to ask out for coffee.

In an effort to patch things up with her brother and their mutual friend, Ravi, Nora will live her life on a successful concert tour with their band, The Labyrinths. Since she had been a Philosophy major in college, she is able to pour her philosophical thoughts into some unique and catchy song lyrics that have made them one of the top bands in the world. Another reality finds her as a Philosophy professor who contemplates the words of one of her favorite writers, Albert Camus: “But you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY reads like a dream and provides so much joy and wonder that you will not want it to end. When Mrs. Elm explains to Nora early in the novel that “[b]etween life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices... Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?” it is hard for her or the reader to contain themselves. This is because the answer is an undeniable “yes,” and what comes next are the things that dreams are made of.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 2, 2020

The Midnight Library
by Matt Haig

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525559493
  • ISBN-13: 9780525559498