Book review: The midnight library by Matt Haig

  • Trigger warning – discussion of suicide.
The front cover of Matt Haig's book The Midnight Library

Are you a fan of Dicken’s Christmas Carol? If so The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, may be right up your street. Both books, although written centuries apart, involve main characters who have a deep sleep, leading them to reflect on their life and rethink their future.

This time though, The Midnight Library’s main character, Nora Seed isn’t just asleep but unconscious. She’s attempted suicide because she’s riddled with regrets, and confused about how her life, has become so painful, pointless and isolated. The death of her beloved cat, Voltaire, is the final straw.

But after trying to kill herself Nora awakens in a mystical library (not the one pictured, that’s just in St Albans). Here she gets to explore the lives she could have lived if only she’d made another choice. If she’d kissed the man, moved overseas or said yes to the job. By witnessing the pain, and pleasure, of all her potential existences she’s able to make peace with her own life.

The good and the bad of The Midnight Library

Well, it’s a sweet book – easy to read, simply written and underlined with a mental health motto, which is: regrets are a waste of time and all the the bad things that happened to you may have been for the best. This is mentioned multiple times throughout the book. And then one last time at the end, in case you’ve been daydreaming. Nuanced it is not.

The main character Nora is likeable enough, the dialogue’s good and the plots well paced. But there’s something about this book that leaves me flat. It feels like a paint by numbers attempt to write a novel with mental health at its heart. And considering how emotive the subject of suicide and regrets are, I was surprised by it’s failure to move me.

Also I found myself bored and irritated each time Nora begins a new life. She doesn’t just waltz in and make herself at home. Instead there are pages of miscommunication, misunderstandings and farce as she tries to work out who she is and where she is. At one point she’s a rockstar about to go on stage, but can’t remember the words to her song. In another chapter she’s an Olympic swimmer giving a motivational speech, yet she has no clue what to say. I found it tiresome. But if you’re a fan of Jim Carrey films or Sophie Kinsella novels you might disagree.

Ultimately though, it’s a comforting book, like a cuddle from your mum or a mug of hot chocolate on a cold day. And comfort is probably Matt Haig’s intention and certainly his selling point. He desperately wants us all to feel a little bit better in managing this messy life. I expect he was never aiming to write a book that’s clever, cynical or wry, but instead to provide reassurance that regrets are normal. And it seems to have been appreciated. The book boasts numerous five star reviews on Amazon, and has hit the number one spot on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Plus, I hear he’s got another novel coming out for Christmas, so you may not need Scrooge after all.

And finally…

The Midnight Library completes my summer goal of reviewing a wellbeing novel for every week of August. Such a relaxed sounding challenge has been surprisingly tough going. Good fiction is hard to write, and I’ll be a lot more appreciative, and a lot less critical, of it in the future. My favourite book of the four was Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat.

It’s now chilly outside and the summer feels well and truly over. I’m ready to turn the heating on and my attention back to some meatier, mental health reading. So, for next week I’ll be reviewing a book about self esteem called Know Your Worth, by counsellor and bestselling Sunday Time author, Anna Mathur.