In ‘The Midnight Library,’ Books Offer Transport to Different Lives

By Karen Joy Fowler (

Sept. 29, 2020

    Few fantasies are more enduring than the idea that there might be a second chance at a life already lived, some sort of magical reset in which mistakes can be erased, regrets addressed, choices altered. This deep desire for a different life, or for more lives than just the one, is at the heart of any number of stories — movies like “Groundhog Day,” “Sliding Doors” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”; television shows like “Sliders” and “Quantum Leap”; wonderful novels like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” Andrew Sean Greer’s “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells,” Jo Walton’s “My Real Children” and many others. Into this ever-popular genre, Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” is a welcome addition.

    Haig’s central character is 35-year-old Nora Seed. Nora is a woman with many gifts and few accomplishments. She’s estranged from her only living relative, an older brother, and also distant from her only close friend both emotionally and geographically. She had “always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation.” In short order, in a life already littered with remorse, she loses both her job and her beloved cat, Voltaire. “As she stared at Voltaire’s still and peaceful expression — that total absence of pain — there was an inescapable feeling brewing in the darkness. Envy.”

    In Haig’s book, the mechanism through which transmigration takes place is the Midnight Library of the title. This structure occupies a magical space between life and death. Its facade replicates an ordinary library, shelves with books, but on an infinite scale.

    [ Read an excerpt from “The Midnight Library.” ]

    [ Download Epub "The Midnight Library" ]

    The librarian is very wise, as librarians tend to be. She explains to Nora that every book on the shelves is a doorway into a different life. Only one book is an exception to this, “The Book of Regrets,” a volume so heavy and toxic it’s dangerous for Nora to read more than a few lines.