The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Mental Health Representation Done 'Write')
GENRE: Adult Sci-fi
LENGTH: 288 pages
After Nora Seed decides to take her own life she finds herself in an in-between place known as the Midnight Library where every book contains another version of her life where she made a different choice.
Nora is by all accounts a talented woman full of promise. She's an athlete (swimmer), a musician (pianist and singer), and is quite intelligent. Yet depression doesn't care about her skills or potential and Nora finds herself down on her luck and deep in her hopelessness. She's a character I saw myself in as I'm sure that many others with depression (and even other mental illnesses) will.
Mrs. Elm is Nora's childhood librarian and also the librarian of the Midnight Library (though this is not the true Mrs. Elm). The Mrs. Elm in the Midnight Library serves as a gentle, encouraging guide to Nora. She is a pillar that every mental illness sufferer needs. I'll discuss her more in an upcoming section of this review.
The novel is told from the third person perspective of Nora. The writing showcases an intimate understanding of mental illness and in particular depression and suicidal ideation (coming from a sufferer of both). While the novel revolves around a woman who has attempted to commit suicide I cannot thank Haig enough for not including a scene of the attempt itself. While the premise of the novel may still be upsetting to some not including a graphic self-harm scene greatly reduced (for me, at least) how triggering this novel was. At the same time not having such a scene in no way took away from the novel's emotional impact.
The structure/pacing of this novel is flawless. The novel begins on the last day of Nora's life leading up to her attempt and this gives the reader a better understanding of her mental health status and life circumstances. At each juncture/life after the attempt Nora gleans a new lesson or comes to a new understanding about her 'root' life and herself. Every sequence and every word of this novel felt intentional and purposeful.
The rules of the Midnight Library are quite simple and are explained to Nora and, in turn, the reader. Essentially, the books in the library serve as portals to parallel universes of which there are an infinite number. I believe the sci-fi elements of the novel function similarly to the fantasy ones of The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune. That is, they are used to further the story's narrative rather than to build a complex world.
Having the location of this in-between be a library and Nora's guide being a version of Mrs. Elm was a brilliant decision on Haig's part. After all, the library and Mrs. Elm are representative of a place and person in Nora's life that offered her what she later came to lack; belonging and kindness. It represented all Nora's hopes and dreams that were later discarded, so it's only fitting that another version of it is where she is rejuvenated.
I am not someone who thinks that you need to have a mental illness to write characters with mental illness. I don't believe in restricting a writer's vision and creativity. However, it is my experience that those who intimately know the battles of mental illness are the ones who write it best. Haig himself has been open about his mental health struggles. I think it's wonderful he was able to take his suffering and transform it into art that could potentially help someone else. The message of the story, at its core, is one of hope. As Mrs. Elm reminds Nora several times throughout the story, death is the antithesis of possibility.
FINAL RATING: 5 ⭐
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