Monday, November 15, 2021

Review of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The glass half full or half empty is a common enough cliché. Appreciate what you have or critical of what's absent, it's a litmus statement about a person's view to the world. And, if Matt Haig's 2020 novel The Midnight Library has any say, it's indicative of something much more.

Nora Seed is a woman living in London. Her life largely directionless, she was briefly in a band, chose to study philosophy at uni, and now in her late 20s works in a record shop earning minimum wage. Likewise single, her only companionship are a couple long-distance social media friends and a cat, Voltaire. But even those circumstances are subject to change, and when they do, Seed elects to end it all. Situation is, however, that she never gets a chance to finish the job. Ending up at the midnight library, she has the opportunity to see life in a way we can only imagine.

While it's true of every novel, I can't help but feel that the ultimate substance of The Midnight Library is truly-truly up to the reader. I went with a glass half full/empty analogy in the intro, but there are a few other significant ways the story can be understood—awakening, confirming, challenging, puzzling, etc. To ensure this is not understated, Haig has invested every ounce of his emotional, psychological, and mental self into Nora, and as a result the reader has a chance to look at the world through a pair of human eyes—fictional eyes, yes, but human through and through. The fact that the reader is treated to a buffet of imagination makes the substance all the tastier.

As a result, one of my recurring thoughts reading The Midnight Library was: “This is what The Fifteen Lives of Harry August should have been... This is what The Fifteen Lives of Harry August should have been...“ Haig truly digs into the meaning of multiple chances at life, but from a more realistic, human point of view (i.e. rather than gimmicky in the case of North's novel). Mild spoiler: parallel universes play a role, but Haig never gets into any “science fiction”, hand-wavy explanations of what and why, nor does he let this device get in the way of Seed's story. If science fiction can sometimes be a literature of ideas, this is a literature of life with a science fiction springboard.

One of the quandaries Haig undoubtedly faced writing The Midnight Library is: How to end the novel? Go maudlin? Or go fatalistic? Each option is fraught with its own risks. Maudlin could undermine the realism/seriousness of the topics presented. Fatalism could likewise play an unintended role. No spoilers, Haig chooses another road, one that will likely not be a surprise to readers for whom the novel is a confirmation, but will certainly speak honestly to readers for whom Nora takes on more personal meaning.

In the end, The Midnight Library is warm humanism at heart and realistic and honest on its surface. Haig does not shy away from the dark side of the human condition, speaking in direct terms about the issues people face, yet does so in an imaginative, complementary form. Haig will not set the world on fire with his prose; diction is straight-forward and to the point. But this is not a novel for which a florid, minimalist, etc. authorial voice would add anything. It's best told straight-forward such that readers, regardless whether they see the glass as half-full or empty, have as good a chance as possible at relating to the material.

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