In this blog-exclusive review, Elise talks about Matt Haig’s 2020 novel, The Midnight Library. Yep, it’s a popular and hyped book covering some pretty intense themes. So here’s an attempt to wrangle a lot of thoughts and feels together.
Please note that this blog post contains spoilers!
Mental health issues covered in the book: Suicide, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, self-harm
Additional content warnings for the book itself: deaths of family members/friends/pets, cheating spouse
About the Book
Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?
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 her 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.
About the Author
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 in over 40 languages. 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.
Matt Haig has spoken extensively about his experiences with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. For example, he spoke to The Guardian about his experience when he was suicidal in his 20s.
Nora doesn’t want to be alive any more
Nora is full of regret. With a lot of missed opportunities in her life, she is left feeling deeply unsatisfied and endlessly self-critical. She is disconnected from her family, and has grown apart from her best friend. She loses her job, and her cat dies. All of these things build up, and – as part of an ongoing depressive episode – lead her to decide to end her life.
The lead up to Nora’s suicide felt realistic, although – of course – tragic. While reading, I was thinking a lot about the interpersonal theory of suicide. This theory proposes that there are two key areas at play when a person wants to end their own life: thwarted belongingness, where a person no longer feels connected to others, and perceived burdensomeness, where a person believes they are a burden to others and they would be better off without them. Nora seemed to be experiencing both of these, as well as feeling that there are no other options but to end the pain.
What if you could do things a little differently?
But Nora gets another chance to build a life worth living. A lot of chances, in fact.
Upon first impression, the Midnight Library is a wonderful thing. Nora enters some kind of space between life and death, where there are infinite numbers of books that represent different variations of her life. Lives where she made different choices. So Nora starts to try on other lives: the life where she stayed with her ex; the life where she became an Olympic swimmer; the life where she became a glaciologist.
But Nora struggles to find contentment in her new lives. The new pathways don’t seem to make her happy; in some lives, she may be more ‘successful’, but she is still experiencing symptoms of depression. I found this realistic – there are lots of situations that can lead a person to experience mental health issues, and ‘success’, wealth or fame do not preclude this from happening! (Though, they can be protective, of course.) In some lives, she’s closer with certain people, but she has drifted away from others – or in some cases, they have died. Even her cat is not immune from fate, as we find out that he was sick, and would have died even if she had kept him indoors. (RIP Voltaire. You were too good for this world).
Eventually Nora finds a life that seems like the best fit – she’s happily married to her neighbour, has a young daughter, and is working at a university. But even then, things aren’t perfect, and Nora starts to feel like an imposter in this life.
Back to the ‘root’ life
Ultimately, Nora lets go of this life, and returns back to the Midnight Library. But things are falling apart.
She finds herself heading back to her original life – surviving her suicide attempt. She slowly starts to reconnect with her brother and to take other steps to improve her life. It may be too late to become an Olympic swimmer, but she can build up her business and engage in some volunteering. Ultimately, Nora realises that her original life wasn’t wrong or hopeless, but it was her inability to let go of her regrets, or to see a path forward, that was letting her down.
Look. I predicted this ending from the start, although I didn’t predict all of the plot along the way. Predicting an ending is a mixed bag; it means that you pick up on key plot points – or clues – as you read, but it also means that sometimes things lack an emotional punch. That’s not to say that the ending was ‘predictable’, per se, but it was aligned with some of the messaging mental health professionals try to communicate to people who are considering ending their life. That even when things feel hopeless, things can – and do – get better. And that there are things within a person’s control that they can change, even a small step at a time. I’ve had similar conversations with my clients! I really don’t think the author could have ended this book in another way that would have felt satisfactory. Though I kind of wish – in at least one life – we had seen Nora take charge of her mental health through accessing therapy. We see that in some lives, she takes antidepressant medication; though this is not explored in-depth, I got the impression that medication helped her a little.
Final thoughts and star rating
The Midnight Library was both a simple and complex story, highly philosophical and filled with some important messages. It read almost like a fable, but avoids a lot of clichés that can come with that style of storytelling.
Nora was a strong and well-developed protagonist, and I appreciated her character arc. Though it was weirdly frustrating how bad she was at being undercover at times, leading to a lot of cringey moments in her alternative lives. Girl, just fake being sick! You don’t have to improvise everything!
Although generally well-written, my main criticism is that it read like a self-help book at times. The messaging lacked subtlety, distracting me from the narrative. It was filled with beautiful quotes, which I will surely see on motivational posters in years to come, but sometimes these felt jarring.
But ultimately, the lessons from the book are valid and authentic, and I do hope readers take something away from this book. Maybe they will reflect upon what regret means to them.
Relevant mental health resources:
- BeyondBlue and Head to Health provide a range of resources about identifying and coping with suicidal thoughts and feelings.
- ReachOut has some information about coping with the suicide of a loved one. So does Lifeline, with some Australia-specific resources.
- Mindframe has a set of guidelines for media on how to communicate safely and accurately about suicide.
More stories like The Midnight Library
- Matt Haig has written several books – you can find a list on his website. Priscilla has read Reasons to Stay Alive and recommends it.
- Jennifer Lin from The Bibliofile has compiled a list of nine books you might like if you enjoyed The Midnight Library.
Voices from Lived Experience
Stephanie Whitman from The Espresso Edition, who has experienced depression and is a suicide attempt survivor, felt very positive about this book: “I sobbed my way through The Midnight Library because it was like I was seen all over again, but from a new perspective. “
Sarah Collins from The Arts Desk also gave the book four stars. In the context of her own experiences with depression and suicidal ideation, she generally felt that the book portrayed these experiences with compassion, and Nora felt ‘absolutely real’. However she did note an important criticism: “I found the depiction of antidepressants reductive: when Nora enters one of her favourite potential lives, she views the absence of antidepressants in the bathroom drawer as evidence of a happy life. Writing from lived experience, Haig is right to critically examine the efficacy of powerful medication; however, in a book that treats every other aspect of mental health with such compassion, it is disappointing to find an implicit disregard for what is, for many who battle with suicidal urges, a life-saving and life-maintaining treatment.”