The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a tricky one… I loved the premise: Nora Seed is seriously depressed – at the age of 15 she quit professional swimming, severely disappointing her father. Her mother died. Her brother, she feels, is in a rough spot because she quit his band.
Even her elderly neighbour doesn’t need her anymore and now her cat has died.
She just doesn’t want to go on.
»She imagined being a non-sentient life form sitting in a pot all day was probably an easier existence.«
(Or wishing to be one’s cat, yours truly would like to add.)
At this point, Nora tries to end it all (if YOU consider suicide, please google “suicide” in your native language and call one of the hotlines you’re going to find!) – only to find herself in the eponymous “Midnight Library”.
The concept of the Midnight Library builds upon the hypothesis of the multiverse which basically states that there is a(n) (infinite) number of parallel universes just like ours. Those universes may overlap, or consist completely independently of each other and will, by definition, diverge from each other with every single choice someone makes.
When Nora enters the Midnight Library and finds an infinite number of books, she learns that each book represents one possible life she might have lived. The one life she just tried to leave is her “root” life.
From her “root” life sprout innumerable other lives of which Nora may try any life she can sufficiently describe (e. g. asking for a “happy” life is not enough as she has to define what makes her life happy).
Once she opens the book that corresponds to her description, she enters that life and lives it until she is either so disappointed that she leaves and returns to the library, or she finds a “perfect” life into which she settles, forgetting the entire ordeal of getting there.
And this is where the cookie starts crumbling a bit: In one life Nora chooses, she is a glaciologist – but in her root life she wasn’t and how is she supposed to navigate a scientist’s life not actually being one?
Even more problematic to me: What about the lives of her alter egos? Ok, so if she leaves an usurped life, its original “occupant” will just feel weird but be well.
What if Nora stays in such a life, though? She would – quite literally – be taking a life. A life that its occupant presumably enjoyed. A life no more or less worth living than Nora’s root life.
Is “root”-life Nora’s life worth more than that of the non-root Nora’s? If we really accept the premise of the multiverse – wouldn’t all those parallel worlds be equally worthy of existence?
What if she robs humanity’s only chance at salvation because she steals the life of the one person who might have saved the planet? (Yes, highly unlikely in reality but this is more of a philosophical question.)
The Talmud states in Sanhedrin 37a: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.”
Isn’t the opposite also a valid idea? If we take a single life, don’t we destroy a whole “world”?
What about partners or children even? Nora would basically be “the other woman”, the one who cheats. The person who stole a child’s true parent. (Because Nora might grow into a version of said parent but she will not ever be that parent.)
Isn’t that a horrible betrayal?
And if we take that “permanently taking a life” seriously – doesn’t that ultimately amount to murder? (Or maybe: Suicide – again?)
Nora even recognizes this fatal flaw of the entire concept at one point:
»Everything was right, and yet she hadn’t earned this. She had joined the movie halfway.«
Unfortunately, this flaw – not having earned this – is inherent in the very premise of the book and it cannot be fixed because there’s only one life that Nora has earned a right to…
“The Midnight Library” doesn’t really deal with these questions because it mostly avoids them: The longer Nora stays in a “borrowed” life, the more she grows (or declines) into it. Thus, referring back to the earlier glaciologist example earlier, she might have grown into that life of a scientist. I can accept that even though it’s somewhat deus-ex-machina.
I fully buy into the concept of “second chances” (or more) and I found Nora endearing. I liked how she learnt what was right or wrong for her.
I’m not entirely happy with the ending (even though it’s a happy one) because it is the easiest way out of the prime dilemma (by avoiding it entirely).
I cannot fully overcome the “taking a life” issue (or the weaselling out of it) and yet I cannot not like this book either.
Four and Five Schrödinger stars out of five – you get to open the box!
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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig