One of the side benefits of being in a book club is that I end up reading books that I wouldn’t choose to read on my own. The most recent book club selection, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, falls into that category.
A head’s up: spoilers may abound ahead (in as much as they can for a book that doesn’t have a whole lot of twists or surprises).
The Midnight Library centers around Nora Seed, a 35 year old (I was surprised when I was verifying that because I remembered her as a young twenty-something) living in small-town England. The narrative opens with a countdown to her attempted death by suicide (the tone came across as a little too flip of a way to use a mental health epidemic for my taste). She finds herself in the titular library filled with books through which she can visit lives other than her main (or “root”) life. She is guided by Mrs Elm, her elementary school librarian and a sort of mother figure.
I found myself mostly annoyed through most of my reading of the book, annoyed by the fact that a male author’s main character was a woman. It was a story that I had read, heard, or seen before in various formats (person experiencing other lives through books, or film, or other art or narratives comes to a deeper understanding of his own life) but this time it was a woman as the main character. More specifically, it was a woman as the main character written by a man. Haig seemed to be practicing, for lack of a better phrase, a sort of “femme pen”. Was this book taking up a run on the printing press that should have belonged to a woman author?
In addition to being annoyed, I also spent a lot of time (perhaps too much time?) thinking about what might motivate a male author to write a female protagonist. And more broadly, what did my experience with this text say about men and women’s experiences in the world and how they are different.
I was struck by how little Nora seemed concerned for her own physical safety in spite of seemingly being plunged into these other dimensions with little to no warning. I first had this thought when she woke up on a ship which ended up having at least some other men on it. Personally, this would have scared the shit out of me. And one of my first thoughts waking up around strange people and in a strange place would have been: what did they do to me, how am I going to defend myself, and how am I going to survive and get out of this situation?
You might think it would be refreshing to read something where a woman character is landing in each of these places and her safety isn’t a concern. But it didn’t feel like to me as a reader. It felt to me that the writer had not spent any time considering how this experience would actually feel to an actual woman.
Nora lands on the ship, specifically, because one of her dream alternative lives is to be a glaciologist. In her “root life”, as it is called, she worked at a music shop. Some of her other lives involve being a pub owner, an Olympic swimmer, and a “rock star.”
I recalled a time when I was in Thailand and I went to go visit a local fortune teller/ palm reader. Amongst other things, I asked him, “what am I going to be?”
He looked at me, slightly confused, tipped his head slightly, gestured towards me and answered, “That.”
Turns out asking what I would be is a very western (capitalist?) way to look at the world and myself. For this particular fortune teller, I was already what I was. So much for all the time spent thinking about and answering questions about, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I already am what I am. And so are you.
I digress because for Nora, her first few slides (into other dimensions) are basically slides through different jobs, as if identity is a career costume. Perhaps I was just fortunate to have met the right fortune teller at the right time who disrupted this western notion that you are your career. Or perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and thus have always had fewer career options (and role models in those careers in real life or even in fiction realistically portraying what it would be like to have that career, potential sexual harassment and all). And perhaps it’s because Haig is a man, the link between job and self is stronger than it should be if one is to maintain a healthy sense of self.
On the ship, Nora meets Hugo who is, it turns out, another slider (and, in fact is the one who introduces her to that word). He has been sliding in and out of alternate lives (his library is actually a video store) for much longer than Nora. The whole deal seems effortless to expert Hugo, especially in contrast to newbie Nora.
Which is all to say that what struck me whilst reading this book is that it seems that men (and, of course, I’m writing very broadly and generally here) seem to have a very expansive exterior life while women have been forced, by lack of exterior opportunity, to have a rich and deep interior life. And that this rich interior life (which might be something that Nora could use and lean into during this particularly stressful time in her life) is largely absent in Nora and perhaps that is because she was created by a man.
Nora seemed incredibly alone to me. In most of her lives, including her root life, she was largely shown primarily in relationship with men and her one close woman friend was, in most of the lives, far away in Australia. And this made me feel a little bit sorry for Nora. But mostly it made me feel sorry for Matt Haig and for other people who feel like him because it felt like one thing the story was getting at was a sort of unexpressed sense of isolation. Perhaps this isolation is too painful to write about and so he ended up writing it onto a woman character where it ended up feeling flat.
After I finished the book, I happened to be talking to my brother about it (who also is in the same book club and had also finished reading The Midnight Library) and he had just been reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. One of the things that he commented on was how the main character of that book is a man, Milkman, who is shown in relationship with a number of women who are ostensibly supporting and, yet, in Morrison’s pen are fully realized characters. And how it is in these relationships with fully realized women that Morrison gives us Milkman, also fully realized both through these relationships and in his story.
The Midnight Library was the opposite of Song of Solomon. Rather than a man at the center, Haig places a woman in relationships with mostly men, but it feels ultimately rather two-dimensional.
Haig’s narrative did make me reflect quite a bit on how expectations placed on men and women have boxed us all in perhaps most noticeably in terms of our ability to participate in exterior versus interior lives. Nora eventually finds a way into her own life which on the exterior, at least, she seems to find some measure of fulfillment. I wonder whether Haig, too, found whatever (perhaps interior?) fulfillment he was searching for in his creation of this narrative.
As for me? I’ve already slid past The Midnight Library and on to the next book where, perhaps, I’ll find another dimension that resonates more with my own.