The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library is a kind of philosophical fantasy, set in a half-way house between life and death. This place takes the form of a library where a troubled young woman called Nora Seed gets to look at all the lives she might have led if she had made different decisions.

To read a book is often to experience a different life, and I think it’s always better to see the good things about a book rather than look for negatives. This is also the message of The Midnight Library. So we seem to be off to a good start. Stretching for the positives, I did think that to some degree The Midnight Library found a version of Groundhog Day wisdom – taking the one life you have and seeing it in a better way. The subject of the story is interesting and gets you thinking.

But I have to admit there were aspects of this book I did not enjoy. Whereas Groundhog Day has a neat and charming central concept based on recognisable daily routine, the metaphor of The Midnight Library is a convoluted mishmash of quantum physics and parallel universes, no less. Basing your fictional universe on something like quantum physics is a bit like basing it on religion, something so abstruse as to be unchallengeable. You just have to trust in the author’s higher power. A simple reader like myself can hardly object to something he doesn’t understand. Well, respectfully, I would like to object. I do wonder how much a fiction author can really know about the outer reaches of physics. In one of the various lives lived via the library, Nora finds herself in a study where a few books on popular science are described as sitting on a shelf. Personally I think those books are somewhat reflective of the scientific knowledge in The Midnight Library. I’ve read a few popular science books too, including A Brief History of Time – thank you – but I don’t think that would qualify me to start getting metaphorical with quantum physics. And although I don’t know much about the subject, I do feel that whatever the universe is about at the quantum level, it probably doesn’t involve giving people lots of lifestyle options. That just didn’t make sense to me. It came over as a strained plot device.

The retrospective imagining of different possibilities was a good premise for a story. We can all identify with someone looking back over their life and imagining how things might have gone with different choices. But all the complicated underpinning just lost me. It would have been much better without it.

I suppose, there is also my personal feeling that life isn’t an endless series of choices leading in countless directions. Yes there have been turning points in my life where things could have gone this way or that, but the idea that I could have infinite other lives by making different decisions just doesn’t seem reasonable. For a start if I were to be a specialist in Latin ballroom dancing, or a pilot in an aerobatic display team, then I would have to be a totally different person with hips that move and eyes that aren’t short sighted. I recall reading Tolstoy’s War And Peace in a confused period after university, when it was difficult to know which way to go. War And Peace is a long study of peoples’ ability – or lack thereof – to make decisions about the direction of their lives. Tolstoy portrayed human choices as in some way fated. Perhaps that influenced me at a crucial moment, and informed the rather laid back view I have had of choices ever since.

This book wasn’t for me. Physics might be about objective truth, but fiction is about ringing true, which is a bit different, more subtle, and more prone to individual experience. So if it worked for you I’m glad, because it is always better to enjoy a book. But it didn’t work for me.

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