Reading The Midnight Library feels like reading snippets of multitudes of books and coming away with a bunch of disjointed information. If Haig honed in his research and spent longer dealing with philosophical ideas it could have been a truly insightful book. Instead, it only remains a fun and unique read with awkward writing.
Following Nora, a character who suffers from poor mental health and coming towards mid-life, we see her life fall apart as she believes she hasn’t done anything meaningful. “Nora was only able to think of herself in terms of things she was not”. She regrets the path she has chosen and as a consequence decides to end her life.
Instead of descending into nothingness, she ends up in some type of purgatory. Haig is an atheist, so instead of the character being purged of her sins, Nora is thrust into a library. A library that is full of books that allow her to live out all the potential lives she could have had. It seems common for the reader to be disappointed by the library. They are looking for references to books and a heap of intertextuality. Instead, we get randomly placed philosophical ideas from the likes of Thoreau and a look into Nora’s possible life as an Olympic swimmer or a co-pub owner.
The philosophical references link to Nora’s degree she took at Bristol University. As a philosophy student, I get the need to throw random quotes about, boast your knowledge. But in fiction writing it becomes comic. The quotes lose their meaning and become another eye roll. The book had so much potential to have a detailed and philosophical discussion but it simply scratches the surface and leaves the discussion out of place.
The novel seems to be stuck between being fun (although there is nothing fun about mental health and suicide) and something powerful. It seems like Haig couldn’t decide. So he went for both which affected the novel. Haig is known for his children books and the simplicity and colloquial nature of the language is reflected here. Children books and Hobbes are not compatible!
After having time to reflect I realised it read like the mind of someone who had anxiety. Having anxiety myself I understand the need to cram everything into a piece of writing. Fear that if you don’t write every single thing down it will descend into nothingness. I always fly past the word count on my essays and spend hours debating what to get rid of! Haig himself suffers from anxiety and I have sympathy that his writing style may reflect his mentality. As Nora said, “I have anxiety, I have no other type of thinking available”. Sometimes it gets in the way of things and there is nothing we can do. If the novel was in the first person he could have used this messy style to his advantage. The chaotic stream of consciousness that switches from narrating the situation to random quotes from Nora’s degree would have a whole lot more meaning. It wouldn’t be so trivial.
Nonetheless, I have given the novel three stars and there is a lot to be praised about it. Haig is a talented writer and has a lot of wonderfully absurd ideas — anxiety gives you a lot of those! The take on life and death, a contemporary representation of an afterlife through the library was refreshing and plausible. The conversations and lessons learnt reminded me of Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet in Heaven. In the face of death, some of the most valuable lessons are learnt. Albom’s work was a five star read for me and Haig’s could have been too if it wasn’t for the execution.
Although I laughed at the wrong time, the novel did also succeed in making me laugh at the right times. When Nora visits a possible world where she is with her ex and they own a pub, a sign for a pub quiz read: “‘True Knowledge exists in knowing you know nothing — (Socrates after losing our quiz!!!!)”. Philosophy students love philosophy jokes!
Although the idea is fantastical, Haig’s setting is realistic and mundane. It’s why it’s so plausible, it’s all about rooting it in the everyday. Anything can be believed if you get the setting right. Haig did that perfectly.
So whilst I have issues with Haig’s writing, which is just personal preference and perhaps intellectual snobbery, the novel deserves all its hype. We all have done things we regret and would love to try out certain paths. Fiction can help us come to term with our regrets and help us move forward. The Midnight Library is just what is needed during Lockdown where all we can do is think.