(Feb. 21, 2023) — “The Midnight Library” begins, “Nineteen years before she decided to die …” Now that’s an opening hard to ignore.
Some time passes by chapter two, “Twenty-seven hours before she decided to die …” The reader now knows that Nora Seed has not changed her mind. Matt Haig’s book covers those 27 hours.
Nora Seed is a mid-30s college graduate living in the small town where she grew up. In high school, she was a star swimmer with an Olympics’ future, an excellent student, and a musician who sang and played along with her brother’s band, appropriately called Labyrinth. She also loved nature and philosophy. By all appearances, the world should have been her oyster. But appearances can be deceiving.
After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in philosophy, Nora returns home to quiet, dull Bedfordshire (yes, we are in England). She doesn’t become the Olympic swimmer her father had dreamed of, or Labyrinth’s singer or the scientist her school librarian, dear Mrs. Elm, had suggested. The only person she never disappointed was her mother, “who treated Nora like a mistake, in need of correction.”
Nora’s return to Bedford included taking care of her ill mother and working at the record/music store, String Theory. Did you hear those two clues go kerplop? Labyrinth and String Theory? A maze and parallel universe?
The library is not your neighborhood library with extremely long hours, although it is a library of sorts. It is where Nora Seed finds herself after following through on her decision to die. Her watch tells her it is midnight as she steps through the library door. It closes, then disappears upon her entry.
Inside the library
Along with endless bookshelves, thousands of books, all shades of green, all sizes, all with no writing on their spines, is the librarian, a now aged Mrs. Elm. Nora’s watch reads 00:00. Time has stopped.
Nora is not quite dead – not quite alive. The first book opened is “A Book of Regrets,” Nora’s regrets. It is large and heavy. Mrs. Elm explains that each of the other books contains a story of her life with no regrets. She can choose to step into her life as an Olympic swimmer, an Arctic anthropologist, a musician, a singer, a wife, a mother. Anything.
Could Thoreau’s words, “Live the life you’ve imagined” be this simple? But what if that life is no more fulfilling and free of regret than her life in Bedford, which is also one of the green books?
This is a novel of discernment. The alternate lives are real. They do not require escape by choosing suicide, only by discovering that such a life is not what Nora thought it would be, thus returning her to the Midnight Library. Will she decide, that indeed, it is time to leave her life of regrets, to take leave of the Midnight Library, where, outside, time and her death will resume?
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Sunny Solomon holds an MA in English/Creative Writing, San Francisco State University. She is a book reviewer for “The Clayton Pioneer” and her poetry and other writing has been published in literary journals, one chapbook, In the Company of Hope and the collection, Six Poets Sixty-six Poems. She was the happy manager of Bonanza Books, Clayton, CA and Clayton Books, Clayton, CA. She continues to moderate a thriving book club that survived the closure of the store from which it began. Sunny currently lives next to the Truckee in Reno, NV.