Speculative fiction novel about life after death
Content warning: suicide ideation, suicide completion, mental health, self-harm
A couple of people had recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was available as an audiobook and less than 9 hours long (and therefore within my attention span), I decided to try it out. I was a little bit skeptical because the title and premise reminded me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile“. However, without examining it too closely, I chose it as my next running book.
“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan is a speculative fiction novel about a woman in her 30s called Nora whose life is falling apart. She’s lonely, she’s just lost her job and her cat has died. All her family are either dead or estranged. All her dreams of success have fallen by the wayside, and she can no longer think of any reasons to live and just wants the pain to end. However, after Nora completes suicide, she finds that things have not, in fact, ended. Instead, she has arrived in an enormous library full of books of all the alternate lives she could have had. Forced to closely examine all of her biggest regrets, are these other lives really better than the life she has chosen to leave behind?
Coincidentally, this is the third relatively new-release book I have read recently that uses speculative fiction to explore what happens after you die. Here is the first and here is the second, and I think this one is probably my favourite of them. This is a compelling book that gives an honest account of mental health, depression and the things that can lead to someone thinking about suicide. Haig skilfully and realistically conjures Nora’s alternative lives; and even her lives of dazzling success, wild adventure and complete contentment are grounded in the realm of possibility.
One of the things I liked the most about this book is how Nora’s mental health struggles were subtly woven into each possible life: emerging in different ways and requiring different treatment but nevertheless one of the constants. Haig uses trauma and grief to highlight how mental health can suddenly deteriorate, and that seeking help when you need it is crucial. While overall uplifting, this book is at no point overly saccharine or unrealistic about recovering from mental illness. Haig is honest with the readers about the work it takes to live with and live through depression. However, I liked that he took the time to write about the small positive ways you impact the world around you and that “success” comes in many forms. Mulligan was an excellent narrator and made Nora relatable and believable. I was a bit shocked however to learn that not everyone pronounces the word lichen the same!
While I enjoyed this book, there were a few points of logic that didn’t quite make sense to me. The first was in relation to the other Noras whose lives Nora stepped into. Via another character, Haig explains that the other Nora is simply absent and then returns with amnesia about what happened. Assuming both Noras are equally real, I think that the ethics of simply erasing someone temporarily, even if it’s another iteration of yourself, weren’t really adequately examined. I thought that Haig could have perhaps suggested something else instead, such as that the replaced Nora went to her own midnight library. I also felt that Haig several times suggested that Nora’s decision to pursue a particular career to extreme success necessarily had a negative impact on someone in her life, like a price that had to be paid, and I wasn’t sure that always had to be the case. I could nit-pick a few other examples, but I doubt anyone else is interested in quantum ethics and the experience of time and memories in a fictional scenario.
A well-written book with well-executed concept, it definitely leaves you thinking and gives you some great conversation starters to ask your friends.