I just finished up a reading spree of paranormal suspense and felt like a change of pace. I downloaded samples of several best sellers and books recommended by friends and lists. The Midnight Library hooked me.
Why? Because for me, it’s visionary fiction at its best.
One of the most defining elements of Visionary Fiction is that it “embraces spiritual and esoteric wisdom, often from ancient sources, and makes it relevant for our modern life.” I have to admit that The Midnight Library relies more on modern quantum physics than a specific spiritual tradition to lay the groundwork for its major premise. To me, quantum physics is metaphysical. But let’s leave that for the moment. The novel does use “reincarnation, dreams, visions, paranormal events, psychic abilities, and other metaphysical plot devices” as a major part of the action. This is one of the primary definitions of the genre.
I think that the definition is not as important as the effect of the book. This book is healing—emotionally and spiritually. Period.
Nora, the heroine of Matt Haig’s novel, has had enough. When her cat is discovered dead outside, presumably the victim of a hit and run, she decides to follow him into death. She commits suicide, but much to her surprise, rather than being gone, Nora finds herself in a library filled with books. Mrs. Elm, the librarian from Nora’s school days who was kind to her and with whom she played chess, explains that Nora should peruse the Book of Regrets. This heavy, weighty tome contains all Nora’s regrets, from huge—leaving the band she was the lead singer for—to seemingly small—not letting her cat out.
Don’t we all have a book of regrets? Big ones—if I’d taken that job, how would my life have been different. Small ones—I wish I’d been more polite to the checkout clerk. We move on and try to make better choices next time.
Nora, however, gets to return to her life where she made this choice she regrets and make a different one. As soon as she begins to feel disaffected with this new life, she returns to the library to make yet another choice.
So, reincarnation of a sort does play a major role, but Haig sees this more in terms of the multiple universe theory of physics. Each choice we make creates a parallel universe in which we made a different choice—ad infinitum. Which explains the vastness of the midnight library.
Quantum physics does seem metaphysical to me because—well, my first meditation teacher had a master’s in physics and explained the structure of consciousness in terms of quantum theory. We perceive and the universe delivers that reality—at least on a quantum level. Perception creates reality. And the brain might even be a quantum instrument. The synapses between the nerves in the brain are small enough to be ruled by quantum mechanics rather than Newtonian physics.
Leaving that aside, though, several spiritual traditions claim we have a life review after we die. We look at the choices we made, some claim we look at how it would have turned out if we’d made a different choice, and all this helps us pick a life that will assist the soul in evolving toward enlightenment. Even those spiritual traditions that don’t endorse reincarnation talk about a life review.
Nora gets to do this – a lot. By making these different choices, Nora learns and heals. She realizes that the reason her mother never cared for her, leaving her with a weak sense of self-worth, had nothing to do with Nora’s value. This by now is trite psychological pablum, handed out by people who’ve never done any emotional digging whatsoever. “It’s not your fault.” But in Haig’s novel, the realization is deeply realized and resonant with anyone who might still be haunted by a similar feeling.
“…she realized it wasn’t her fault that her parents had never been able to love her the way parents were meant to: without condition. It wasn’t her fault her mother focused on her every flaw…. It went back even earlier than that. The first problem had been that Nora had dared, somehow, to arrive into existence at the time when her parents’ marriage was relatively fragile” (98/34%).
Simple, but profound.
There are many other instances in the novel of this type of realization. Her brother accepts his sexual orientation and marries a man in some lives, which seem to be related to some of Nora’s choices. Some of her biggest regrets lead to pretty miserable lives—a rock star or Olympic athlete. In that last life, she pops in right as she is scheduled to give a talk about her hit book. She can’t remember what she’s supposed to say, but starts talking about what she’s learned from Mrs. Elm and her experiences. She talks about life as a tree—the Tree of Life sort of—and how each life is a twig, but there are all kinds of other branches and twigs. She says what looks like success often isn’t. She repeats her deepest lesson: “The only way to learn is to live” (112/40%).
There is a time clock. If the clock reaches midnight, she’s done exploring and goes through the door on the other side of the library into death. We never get to see past that door.
Nora moves through many realizations as she experiences many versions of her life possibilities. In one instance, she discovers that keeping her cat indoors does not change his fate. She discovers him dead beneath her bed at roughly the same moment in her life as she did in her root life. When she returns to the library, Mrs. Elm tells her the cat had a heart problem and spent his happiest years in her care. This seems to be a turning point for her.
Haig takes his time going into detail in the first few “reincarnations.” Later he flips through like flash cards. In one, Nora spends all her time posting Rumi and Hafiz quotes on her Facebook page. I fought the urge to look over my shoulder for Haig’s knowing gaze because I post quotes from those two Sufis most days.
In her next to final life, she marries a man who asked her out a few times and she refused. She accepts him this time. She pops into a life as a wife and mother who has a job she’s happy with. She wants to stay, but begins to regret that she didn’t create this life on her own—experience all the twists and turns. She returns to the library as it’s falling apart. She has one choice left. You’ll be surprised by it, I guarantee.