Content Warning: Suicide, drugs, overdose
Our Perpetual Negative Self-Talk
Have you ever felt like nothing seems to be going right, no matter how hard you try? Maybe you feel like you’re not where you’re supposed to be in life. Or perhaps you always feel stuck when making significant choices.
If so, congrats, you can relate to Nora Seed, the main character in Matt Haig’s surrealist novel, The Midnight Library.
The book begins with an appropriate quote from Sylvia Plath about feeling as if she has not lived up to her potential in her Unabridged Journals: “I can never read all the books I want; 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.”
This perfectly leads into Nora’s story. The first sentence in her story begins as such, “Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.” It’s a sad note, foreshadowing the dark choice she makes nineteen years later to end her life.
The events leading up to her taking her life begin slowly, with her father passing away nineteen years earlier. They begin compounding as her mother dies from cancer, Nora leaves her fiancé right before their wedding, and she misses out on opportunities and trips. They continue with her cat dying in the present times, her brother coming to town yet ignoring her completely, and Nora getting fired, all leading to a downward spiral. Unfortunately, at this point, she no longer sees a reason to live, and the first part of the story slowly recounts her final hours before she takes her own life.
Our Fascination with What-Ifs, Alternate Realities, and Multiverses
The countdown finishes, and she ends her life by overdosing on antidepressants. After everything goes black, she wakes up in a library, aka The Midnight Library. A place somewhere in between, a limbo of sorts. The shelves seem to go on forever, filled with endless books. In this limbo, her childhood librarian Mrs. Elm reappears to help her find her way through the never-ending library.
Nora quickly realizes each book is a portal into an alternate reality. In these other worlds, Nora has made different decisions in her life and can see how each option has played out.
In other words, she gets to explore the what-ifs she constantly pondered in the waking world. What if she didn’t leave her fiancé? What if she’d taken that crazy trip with her friend to Australia? What if her life was different? And, who wouldn’t want to explore these alternate lifeway paths?
The Haunts of Indecisiveness and Infinite Choices
During this exploration of her alternate lives, in which she marries different men, explores career choices, and more, Mrs. Elm is there to guide her and remind her that she’s on a deadline (think the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, swapped with your favorite childhood librarian).
Nora doesn’t seem to know what she wants as she explores her options. Should she study glaciology? Marry Dan (or Ash)? What will make her happy? While that may come off as an indecisive character who lacks direction for some, it’s realistic to the decision-making process for others. The heavy weight of making big life choices can leave you feeling stuck, wondering if any options will make you happy.
She continues to pop in and out of thousands of versions of her life until Nora slowly accepts her previous decisions. She begins to realize maybe these decisions weren’t mistakes, even though they initially led to her depression and suicide attempt. Eventually, she realizes that the true essence of existence lies in life itself.
After this, Nora actively chooses to enjoy her solitude, even with its ups and downs. Now, all she needs to do is escape the crumbling library, rejoin her original lifepath, and recover from her suicide attempt (whew!). After all that, she’s left with a new appreciation for life and the idea that her options are endless. She’s finally in control of her life instead of just along for the ride.
One of my favorite lines was, “She wasn’t a black hole, she decided. She was a volcano. And like a volcano, she couldn’t run away from herself. She’d have to stay there and tend to that wasteland. She could plant a forest inside herself.”
An Incredible Growing Experience
Perhaps the ultimate lesson of this book is to accept our perceived failures and live in the moment since there’s no way to go back and change the past. While NPR notes Nora as an unrelatable character, I must strongly disagree. Sure, not everyone has experience with depression or suicide, but haven’t we all been stuck with guilt, shame, or regret from past decisions at some point?
At least once in your life, I bet you’ve wondered, what if I made this choice instead? While there isn’t an option to visit alternate realities (at least none that I know of), there is an option to accept our past decisions and events and move on, as Nora eventually does. We can all plant our own trees and grow a forest within ourselves; we just have to choose to see the possibilities around us.
The Midnight Library will be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in alternate realities, dreamscapes, and multiverses. There are Alice in Wonderland elements to this story, and there are many notes that call up moments from the TV show, The Good Place. This would also be an amazing fictional read for those who are working on their personal development, especially in the areas of decisiveness, contentment, and being present.
MATT HAIG is an author for children and adults. His memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, was a number one bestseller, staying in the British top ten for 46 weeks. His children’s book, A Boy Called Christmas, was a runaway hit and is translated into over 40 languages. It is being made into a film starring Maggie Smith, Sally Hawkins, and Jim Broadbent, and The Guardian called it an ‘instant classic’.
His novels for adults include the award-winning How To Stop Time, The Radleys, The Humans, and the number one bestseller The Midnight Library.
He has sold over three million books worldwide.