Content warning – this book contains many mentions of suicide. The plot is very much “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but it’s set in England and instead of a family man on the brink it’s a woman in her mid thirties, single with no children, who is losing the will to live. Nora, our protagonist, has struggled with her mental health (it’s more or less implied – and maybe I’m filling in a bit here because I’ve read Haig’s other non-fiction book about his own struggles with mental health and suicidal ideation). She hits a point at which she feels it is impossible to continue living. Enter the Midnight Library – an in-between place where Nora is able to dive into her regrets (big and small) and see what other life path might follow from making a different choice. Nora visits several different lives that might have been – the rule is that she arrives in the life at midnight at the same age as her “root” self. All she has to do is discover a life in which she has the will to live – as soon as she loses that in one of her lives she returns to the library.
The concept has charm, despite the very serious and sad topic at hand. In each of her lives, real and whatever the library lives might be (imagined doesn’t seem right), Nora experiences grief, some so powerful that she loses the will to live. Nora is an exceptionally talented person who had a lot of options that many of us might not have had (not many people are gifted at athletics, music, and academics to equal degrees). I think it was easier to read this and connect with some of Nora’s regrets as a woman in her 40s, rather than a person in her 20s, possibly, because I have also had the opportunity to make some choices that certainly lead to a different branch in life – things that are bigger than, say, wearing the plaid shirt instead of the one with polka dots. More along the lines of, stay in this relationship, or leave that line of work altogether. And it’s always fascinating to consider what else might have happened.
Taken as a whole, however, there was something almost too pat about the lives that Nora dips in and out of. It’s very clear early on that there’s going to be a MESSAGE here, and while it’s one that I fully endorse, and there are certainly earned moments along the way, there was still something just a little bit too … sweet? Cringy? It’s really hard for me to criticize this book because, as I mentioned earlier, the concept itself has a lot of charm. I do enjoy Haig’s writing, and I feel that I have benefitted from what he has shared about his own personal struggles. This feels like a companion piece of fiction, and so when I mention some of what didn’t work for me in the book itself I feel like it’s important to separate that really clearly from what I think is a strong and important message related to the topic and the author himself. That said, for me, the book wasn’t that successful – but YMMV.