The Midnight Library
Do you believe in parallel universes? In an infinite number of possibilities for the trajectory of your life? That's the question at the heart of Matt Haig's new novel The Midnight Library. Though the protagonist Nora traverses stacks of books in the tale (and refers to librarians as "soul-enhanced search engines"), the library central to the narrative isn't quite like the Camden Public Library. In her mid-thirties, plagued by panic attacks, and feeling completely hopeless at the meaningless of her single, unemployed, and suddenly cat-less existence Nora decides to take her own life but instead finds herself in a liminal world between life and death. In this Midnight Library, she has the opportunity (presented by her childhood school librarian Mrs. Elm) to try out any of the unending versions of her life that might have made her happier.
Despite the philosophical and scientific complications, the idea of a multiverse is a fairly straightforward premise, and the novel makes for a fast read as Nora flits in and out of different iterations of her existence, each one altered by having taken a different course of action at one pivotal moment in her "root life." The notion of a book as the portal to another world is one that has appeared in numerous guises throughout literature, both literally and metaphorically, so while the author provides his own variations, he never strays too far from familiar themes. Haig peppers the narrative with philosophical reflections from his protagonist who studied the greats and reveled in Thoreau instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a glaciologist. We see her embrace the marriage she ran away from, delve into the life of a rockstar, encounter a polar bear in a Norwegian archipelago, abandon England for Australia, and partake in a domestic life. All of these adventures are essentially predicated on moments when Nora says yes, instead of turning away and birthing yet another regret as she did in her root life.
When Nora finally finds a life that seems borderline perfect, she comes up against the question of whether she can truly inhabit this personal narrative without having taken all the steps that earned her its delight. And, in a Scrooge-style twist, she is forced to wonder about how the absence of her presence in her root life affects people with whom she interacted there, like the troubled boy who stayed away from the rough crowd when he was partaking in her piano lessons. It's easy to get mired in self-reflection while pondering Nora's choices and the questions Haig embeds within them.
The Midnight Library has been quite popular throughout our library system and is in many ways a thoughtful, enjoyable read. If you've picked up the book yourself, what did you think? Did you care for Nora's fate? Is Haig's plot and its theoretical underpinnings original enough to warrant 288 pages of cycles through different lives? Would you visit your own Midnight Library to explore your alternative fates? I welcome your comments below!
If you're interested in other novels about the multiverse, here are some recent titles you may want to check out to see different takes on the concept:
Dark Matter, Blake Crouch
Once on the fast-track to academic stardom, Jason Dessen finds his quiet family life and career upended when a stranger kidnaps him. Suddenly Jason's idle "what-ifs" become panicked "what-nows," as the humble quantum physics professor from a small Chicago college gets to explore the roads not taken with a mind-bending invention that opens doors to other worlds. - From LibraryReads
If, Then, Kate Hope Day
Day’s complex debut explores the mind-bending idea that for every decision made, alternate choices lead to different lives. Four neighbors, living at the foot of a dormant volcano in a peaceful Pacific Northwest community, experience a series of unprecedented events. Those incidents will weave their lives together in unexpected ways. - From Booklist
All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai
Living in an alternate world of flying cars, moon bases and plentiful food, aimless Tom Barren is blindsided by an accident of fate that leads to a time-travel mishap that lands him in our less-than-ideal 2016, where he discovers wonderful unexpected versions of his own life. - From NoveList