Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library was a Sunday Times number one bestseller. Why? For the life of me, I cannot fathom it. That’s personally, though. If I look at the general state of the world and publishing as it is, I can totally see why.
The Midnight Library is essentially a mix of everything this society has come to superficially champion. You name it, Matt Haig’s put it in his book. Mental health, suicide, loneliness, relationships, death, unhealthy family relationships – the book has it all. But rather than actually developing them within the protagonist of Nora Seed, Haig just lists them as attributes of her life.
We are given a few examples of the unhealthy family relationships that aren’t even that unhealthy, to be honest. They’re just an instance of parents being misguided – they’re not abusive or toxic or anything like that. Anyway, Nora isn’t happy with being pressured into swimming when she was growing up. The worst thing in her life was her dad wanting her to join the Olympics. He also died, but that’s not what she was upset about.
Anyway, forgive me for ranting. The Midnight Library is a great concept for a fiction novel. Between life and death is a library. In the library are an unlimited number of books that you open and, effectively, become. In Nora’s case, because she has attempted suicide, if there’s one life/book she decides she wants to live, she will become it. And so goes the plot. Except for the plot quickly becomes repetitive and boring.
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Every time Nora chooses a new life, the pattern ensues. It doesn’t matter if she’s in Australia, America, the North Pole; an Olympic swimmer, or an unhappily married pub owner – Nora arrives in a life and is confused at first. She looks like she has memory problems as she doesn’t recognise anyone.
Then come the ridiculous philosophy references like she’s some kind of academic textbook. Then arrive her feeling of unhappiness in the life she’s chosen… and then she’s back in the library again. Something trendy and deep is told rather prescriptively to the reader. No time for them to make their own assumptions.
This is the crux of my huge gripe with The Midnight Library. Matt Haig is a renowned author, yet completely fails to execute any character development skills. Nora’s two personality traits are that she is so clever because she has read a lot of philosophy, and also that she just wants to die. The latter is bearable – that’s the premise of the book. But when Matt Haig makes almost the entirety of Nora’s dialogue just her saying she wants to die, it’s irritating quick.
Haig is good, though, in the beginning when he expresses the feeling of wanting to not exist anymore. That part of The Midnight Library feels authentic. But he ruins it by calling Nora’s cat Voltaire (after the philosopher), having her quote a renowned philosopher every two sentences, and failing to show us anything really deep about the character.
Once she wanted to be a glaciologist. Turned out she didn’t really! Once she wanted to be a swimmer. Turned out she didn’t really! All Nora is, is depressed and clever. What else is there to a woman, after all?
Haig never shows Nora’s feelings in a way that the reader can feel them. The empathy was lacking because Nora didn’t feel real.
In all honesty, this novel is so overrated. The writing style was cringe-worthy in many places and I often found myself actually rolling my eyes. Matt Haig loses himself in trying to write a book that’s “relatable” to your average do-gooding millennial and one worthy of the social media posts he is so critical of in The Midnight Library.
Showing not telling is an art that all good authors have mastered. This novel becomes a preachy self-help book all too quickly and is only redeemed by good moments peppered sparingly throughout. I am all for talking about the issues Matt Haig does – but only when there’s a strong writer behind them. Not a writer who dedicates three pages to writing the same sentence over and over again with one variation each time.
The ending of the novel is satisfying, though, and around 60 pages in the middle of the novel were genuinely enjoyable.
So, is The Midnight Library worth a visit? Not really. Just choose a book – ahem, Normal People – that’s deep which also allows you to do your own thinking. As Harper Lee once (maybe/probably) said: “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.”