Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?
In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing he dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.
Length: 8 hours 49 minutes
Publisher: Canongate Books
Trigger warnings: suicide
I can see why some people like The Midnight Library. I picked it up because of the hype, despite knowing that I don’t like Matt Haig. Reading The Midnight Library has just solidified that dislike. This is an unpopular opinion, I know, but we’re all entitled to a few, right?
I appreciate what Matt Haig has done for the visibility and understanding of mental health. I think he’s been instrumental in bringing anxiety and depression, in particular, into the cultural imagination. However, I feel that he tends to act like everyone with mental health problems experiences them in the same way. I first felt this when I read Reasons to Stay Alive, following him on Twitter added to this feeling, and this book just solidifies it.
Nora Seed, the main character, has situational depression. This is mentioned once in the book, to my memory. Because this isn’t particularly emphasised, it’s easy to assume Haig is talking about depression in general.
Big point: situational depression, and non-situational depression are two different illnesses. One, as described in The Midnight Library, can be ‘cured’ by changing your situation. The other cannot. I could win the lottery, get a massive book deal, achieve my dream of travelling the world, and I would likely still have depression. My illness is not because of the situation I live in. Whereas Nora’s is.
My biggest issue with this book is its message. Not only does Haig hit you over the head with it, he doesn’t allow for an nuance in his prescription for depression. Nora just needs to change her life and stop regretting things, then she’ll be magically cured.
Nora is middle class. Haig is middle class. Both have options some people don’t. For some with situational depression, their situation isn’t easily changed. Sometimes it’s not even possible to change it at all. Haig never acknowledges this, not in this book, nor anywhere else that I’ve seen. His view of mental health is a very individualistic, middle class, privileged view. Whilst there is definitely space for individual action in recovery from mental health problems, there is also a role for medication and therapy. And some people simply have to live with their illnesses in situations they can’t change.
All this book does is add to the romanticisation of these illnesses, in my opinion.
So, with that out of the way, I will say that The Midnight Library is relative well-written. Haig hits a good balance between description and dialogue, and for the most part, the book makes sense. I think it would have been better if Haig hadn’t tried to give the Library an explanation. It didn’t entirely make sense to me. It also gets a little repetitive during the middle part, when Nora is trying out her different lives, and there was a section towards the end that I don’t think really needed to be there at all.
For some people, The Midnight Library could be the right book at the right time with the right message. For others, it could just add to their sense of hopelessness. If they don’t have the same privileges Nora and Haig have, and they can’t make the decision to just magically change their lives, it could add to their sense of despair.
A book to handle with caution.