The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Tinker, Tailor,

Soldier, Sailor,

Rich Man, Poor Man,

Ploughboy, Thief –

And what about a Cowboy,

Policeman, Jailer,

Engine-driver,

Or Pirate Chief?

What about a Postman – or a Keeper at the Zoo?

What about the circus Man who lets the people through?

Or the man who plays the organ, and the other man who sings?

What about a Cunjuror with rabbits in his pockets?

What about a Rocket Man who’s always making rockets?

Oh, there’s such a lot of things to do and such a lot to be

That there’s always lots of cherries on my little cherry tree!

Cherry Stones by A. A. Milne from the poetry collection Now We Are Six

One day I’ll discover what I want to do with my life.  I believe this even though I’ve possibly got less than a quarter of it left.

Aged five I was a dancer, whirling around the room to Khachaturian’s Adagio from Spartacus (i.e. the theme tune to The Onedin Line), but Dad had already put me down for piano lessons and couldn’t afford dance classes as well. Despite tears and tantrums, piano won the day. It still hurt five years later when the part of Fairy Godmother in the school play went to a girl who was learning ballet. I sat in school uniform in the darkness of the ‘musicians’ pit’ while she pirouetted in the spotlight in a pretty, white tutu and silk points.

If I couldn’t learn to dance, I reasoned, I would sing and act. I devised a musical version of Cinderella, interspersing narration and dialogue with pop songs. (Highlights included the Ugly Sisters singing “Hey Big Spender” to Prince Charming, and Prince Charming serenading Cinderella with “I’m Stone in Love with You”.) I was Cinderella, of course, and kids from my road were roped in to play the other parts. If I lost patience with them for not remembering their lines I’d rehearse alone, playing all the parts. At secondary school I moved on from Cinderella to Sandy, belting out “You’re the One that I Want” during lunch break with my best friend (who took the part of Danny), until Grease gave way to a Star Wars obsession. I co-wrote a fan-fiction script with another school friend and we acted it out with classmates. (Who was I? Princess Leia, duh!) When that ran its course I spent weekends practising pop-folk duets with yet another school friend – we called ourselves Masquerade Reward – and tried my arm at song-writing. I put myself forward for school productions. Waiting for the curtain to go up it was suddenly real and I felt sick with stage fright. It wasn’t what I’d expected. If I wasn’t a performer, what was I?

Choosing subjects for ‘O’ level, I was paralysed by indecision. I no longer knew what I wanted to be and every subject dropped was a path closed off.

Choosing ‘A’ levels was even worse. The careers advisor asked me where I was headed. I didn’t know. Being advised to “study what you enjoy” didn’t help as I liked bits of everything. I dithered right up to the last moment, finally settling on English Literature, Latin and RE, then arrived at options evening to find the latter two weren’t being offered. In a complete spin  I signed up for Physics, Chemistry and Biology, based on nothing more than a love of the American TV show Quincy and a throwaway comment from an aunt that “we could do with a doctor in the family”. It was a year before I finally allowed myself to admit that I was miserable. I dropped Biology and crammed the two-year English programme into one year.

When the time came to apply for a place at University, I applied to study…Russian. Yes, I can’t quite figure it out myself. Possibly I’d got carried away by Letter to Brezhnev, pictured myself living in Moscow, or Leningrad, or anywhere that wasn’t home. After three months at University, I admitted I’d made a mistake, and spent the Christmas vacation writing to Heads of English at every university I could think of. By January I was studying English again.

I still had no real idea what career I wanted. The Careers Service quiz came up with “Lecturer in Liberal Studies”. What did that even mean? I liked books, so perhaps I’d enjoy being a librarian? The careers advisor told me without History “O” level, I wouldn’t be accepted onto the postgraduate course. (A path inadvertently closed off at 14). Publishing? All the openings were in London and I didn’t want to move to London. In another complete spin I applied to every bank and firm of accountants on the “milkround”. I reasoned I’d pay off my overdraft and earn some money while deciding what to do with my life. I was hired by a large accountancy firm, paid off my overdraft, fell in love with a work colleague (Hubby), got married. Growing up, I’d imagined married life as a large house filled with kids and dogs and noise. Hubby didn’t want kids and his asthma means dogs are out of the question. Thirty-plus years later it’s just the two of us and I’m still an accountant.

Do I regret not being who I’d imagined I’d be? Dancer. Actress. Singer. Pathologist. Traveller. Publisher. Dog Owner. Mother. I would have said yes, yes, yes – until I read The Midnight Library.

Nora is in a free-fall. Her “whole being ached with regret…every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.” Deciding she doesn’t want to live, she takes an overdose and finds herself in the Midnight Library, a mysterious place between life and death, where “every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived”.

A plot involving possible alternative futures is not new, of course. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which won the Costa Novel of the year in 2013, is just one example. Even so, when I heard The Midnight Library on BBC Radio 4 I knew straight away I had to read it. It’s an engaging story told in a straightforward way but encompassing complex ideas – at one point there’s a conversation between Nora and another “slider” about Schrodinger’s cat and quantum superposition that actually seemed to made sense – which is a hard trick to pull off. But the best thing about Haig’s book is it makes you feel better about life. In fact it’s so darn life-affirming it should arguably be prescribed on the NHS.

Say, for example, Dad had let me ditch piano lessons for dance lessons. In the life I’m living now (my “root life”) I have osteoarthritis, which (in my case) is hereditary. I can still run, although I have to be careful how far and how often. Imagine the damage to my cartilage if I’d been a professional dancer! And the financial implications if my livelihood was at stake!

You get the picture. Regrets are pointless because we never know how a different life would have turned out. “It is easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living…It is the happening we have to focus on.” I will never be a professional dancer but “we don’t have to do everything in order to be everything…while we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility”.

The frontispiece contains a quote from Sylvia Plath. “I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.”

But isn’t that exactly what books provide: the chance to experience all possible things and live all possible lives?  Perhaps what I want to do with my life is simply what I’ve been doing all along: reading.

Rating: *** Highly recommended


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