By: Matt Haig
Release Date: August 13, 2020
Award: Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction 2020
Matt Haig is well-known for his nonfiction and self-help books. New to his repertoire is fiction, this time in the form of the international bestseller The Midnight Library. This standalone novel is a cross-section of contemporary fiction, fantasy, self-help, and multiple world line theory.
Nora Seed hasn’t had much of her life go the way she wished it had. In the moments between life and death, Nora finds herself in a vast library with an odd librarian who states that each book is a glimpse into a life she could have lived were her choices different. Suddenly faced with an answer to all of the what-ifs she’s ever had, Nora can’t help but take a peek into futures and pasts that could have been. What makes life truly fulfilling? What makes life worth living? Why should we keep trying when it feels like the universe keeps intentionally kicking us in the teeth? These are the questions Nora sets out to answer, ready to choose a new life to walk into.
Nora may not be an entirely likable character whose actions readers readily agree with, but she is a very understandable one, someone who many, at some point in their lives, have related to. As she jumps from life to life, some things change drastically while others don’t. Each new role Nora finds herself in has its ups and downs, its bleak aspects and wondrous opportunities ripe for the taking. Each life she explores teaches her something new and leads her closer to finding answers to unanswerable questions life had thrown her way.
The slow, slice-of-life approach works very well for this novel. Roughly speaking, each chapter outlines a new possible life Nora could have lived. This lets readers (and Nora) see many of these lives, more than may first be expected. However, the pacing remains the slower, steady rhythm of a more slice-of-life style story.
While Nora grows and learns various life lessons throughout the tale, what she experiences and what she comes away with do tend to sound extremely generic. This is the sort of self-help and outlook on life advice that is very oriented for a wide audience, not something that is tailored for Nora herself. This creates dissonance at times, with Nora coming away having learned something that all of her actions and personality dictate she would have taken a different way, taken longer to realize, or simply not have come to the same conclusion at all. Nothing feels tailored for Nora’s character but rather for the reader. This can, at times, make it feel as if the author is bashing his readership over the head with a motivational poster as opposed to allowing readers (and Nora) to come to their own conclusions and naturally draw advice and life lessons from the very specific circumstances he’s laid out.
Haig’s ability to distill entire lives into one or two chapters is very commendable. Other novels that explore similar premises of “how would different circumstances change a person” have a tendency to linger on each life, often driving page counts out of the realm of “approachable book” or “larger book” and into the page range of “can also be used as a deadly weapon.” Here, the page count is on the slimmer side, but each of Nora’s other lives feels real and fully realized. A myriad of tiny details in everything from dialogue to descriptive passages fleshes out the scene, circumstances, and history of that particular life with incredible skill.
Where Haig’s future fiction works will take readers—if he continues with fiction, of course—remains to be seen. The Midnight Library remains a novel that came out at the perfect time for such a novel—the middle of 2020, when the pandemic was in full swing, people worried, ill, and largely still in self-imposed isolation. The messages conveyed through the pages of this novel were ones many readers truly needed to hear, especially upon its release, and for that it deserves respect. However, a more deft hand is needed to naturally weave together learned lessons, plot, and individual characters.