By Justine Lister, bookworm and reading for pleasure advocate.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Ever since I can remember, I have felt a fascination and an affinity for libraries. I vividly remember the outings to my local library as a child. It was always sold to us kids as a treat, a place where you could go and explore and come home with books that you could have as yours, for just a little while.
Every school holiday would include a library excursion, past the Co-op and the pub on the Guildford Road, across the B&Q car park, turning right at the train station and then arriving at the concrete hulk of a building that housed Southend-on-Sea’s library. Primary school me didn’t ever see the obvious ugliness of the building or it’s sludgy coloured damp stained walls. No, all I could see was the magic and beauty hidden within those walls.
In order to get to the children’s section, you had to go through the magnetic barrier, past the vast desk island, where the librarians would be scanning and piling and stamping and writing and searching. Then turn right and head down the carpeted grey stairs into an almost secret vault of a basement room that held shelves and boxes and rows of wonderfulness. Libraries, and to some degree book shops, have always calmed my soul, excited me, relaxed me and pulled me into them. Once inside, I never wanted to leave and when I did, I felt a pang of sadness that was both palpable and unexplainable.
So, imagine my awe when I started reading The Midnight Library by Matt Haig; the premise of which is a library in the mid-point between life and death. That after we die, that light, that journey, that ending (or new beginning) is a library.
This concept literally took my breath away.
Truly, for me, when my time comes, if I get to rest for a while in a library then I am not worried or scared in the least for what may follow.
Nora Seed is our protagonist and finds herself in the Midnight Library. Perhaps, as the reader, we can take a hint from her name; Seed, as something that is ready to grow and flourish and start over? Nora’s guide through the library is the enigmatic Mrs Elm and forgive me for Googling the symbolism of the elm tree, but it was not entirely surprising to discover that the elm is symbolic of eternal wisdom, life, transformation, liberation and eternity. That’s too much of a coincidence for me not to believe that this was an intentional choice on the writer’s part. Especially when the library’s purpose is revealed.
The Midnight Library is laid out as you would imagine, with continuous rows of shelves of books, except there are no walls containing these. The shelves and the rows go on, seemingly forever and the books are different shades of green. There is one book entitled The Book of Regrets that Mrs Elm guides Nora to, and here the writer took the breath from me for a second time. You see, in The Midnight Library we all have our own copy of The Book of Regrets which is our own story. And within its pages are our hidden chapters – the roads we didn’t take, their junctions and their destinations. Every choice that we make, every day and throughout our lives creates a hidden chapter. My choice to be writing this, for example, would create a chapter in my own Book of Regrets telling the story of what would have become of me if I hadn’t.
My mind was blown. I still can’t stop thinking about it.
Have you seen the film Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow? Or the TV series Quantum Leap? (Sincere apologies if the 90s wasn’t your time for TV!) If you have, then you will without doubt understand the enormity of what The Midnight Library is suggesting and asking us to consider and reflect upon.
We accompany Nora on her journey through her hidden chapters. Her journeys are all manners of things and a plethora of different Nora’s are played out to us. Being with Nora, you experience her pain, confusion, love and regrets in conjunction with hope, freedom and pure reflective hindsight. It seems that there is a real liberation and an unfaltering sense of salvation in being able to go back and see the flip sides of the choices that we have made-that Nora has made.
We must always bear in mind and remember though exactly where the Library is and why Nora is there in the first place.
The Midnight Library is going to stay with me forever, forever making me question and contemplate the choices that I make and have made thus far. Although I must be careful not to think about the twists and turns in the roads not taken as overthinking would be akin to a spoiler for my own visit to The Midnight Library in the future.
You might recall my earlier description of the way that libraries make me feel- once inside, I never wanted to leave and when I did, I felt a pang of sadness that was both palpable and unexplainable. Since reading The Midnight Library, I am honestly wondering if perhaps my own future visit there won’t be my first. I just hope that I am given enough time to read my chapters and that my Midnight Library is the children’s section of the Southend-on-Sea library that has always been and will always hold a sacred space in my heart and my soul.