On the surface, The Midnight Library is a parallel world or time travel science fiction. It is in the tradition of One by Richard Bach. Even Groundhog Day and Bar Bar Dekho are in a similar format. In these movies, the protagonists keeps on traveling to different worlds through some screw up in the time vector.
At a deep level though, the book reminds me of the Leibniz theory that our existing world is the best world among all the possible worlds. Most of the movies above are in a similar vein(except possibly Groundhog Day that emphasizes one’s efforts to create the best world), and it is very easy to be lead to such a conclusion through the device of parallel worlds.
Nora, the protagonist, is not happy with her life. She is fired from her job, has a broken relationship – a relationship for which she sold her dream short, and considers herself a failure. Through some quirk of quantum mechanical gobbledygook that Haig thankfully leaves ambiguous, she enters a series of parallel worlds where she is living a different life – mostly one about which she has some regrets. There is a recurring cast of characters – her boyfriend Dan, her brother Joe, her friend Izzy and several other people.
Haig’s writing is very interesting. He leaves out most details, under-develops his characters and scenes, but builds a very compelling narrative. Though the book gets repetitive due to the nature of the story, you feel like continuing to read, since the story develops Nora’s self exploration – which is treated as a mystery. The language used is simple and it does help the narrative. He takes pauses when he feels some background is needed. I think it would help people who are reading a plot like this for the first time. His treatment of emotions is neither very shallow, nor very melodramatic. Most emotions are understated and are in the background.
The main plot is the way Nora’s character explores her own personality through her interactions with the world. “The only way to learn is to live” seems to be the underlying message. We do not understand the utility of our current situation unless we live alternate lives that we think maybe better. As everyone has experienced regrets, this is very relatable and proves to be the strongest point of the novel. The characters also break into dialogues that explain the situation and the dilemmas in a very obvious, very verbal way. As we travel this path with Nora, we discover her hidden assumptions about what could have been good in her life. The underlying message seems to be that “Everything happens for a reason.” You may find yourself going back to your own experiences and realizing the same insights that Nora found through her journey.
Where the book fails is to create enough excitement for the entire journey. Several of the arcs are repetitive and you may find yourself skipping some pages – and you do not miss much by that act. The characters are flat in many of the narratives and do not have enough depth for us to empathize with them. Some advice may sound banal and shallow. We have heard some of it(whatever happens to you happens for good) before in many places, some of it is plain optimistic and some would not stand the test of common sense.
But overall, it is a good book. The treatment is fresh and there are insights all over the book. It retains a consistent narrative that keeps you hooked to the book and at the end of it, you would not only know many things about Nora, but you would also know about your own fears, regrets and assumptions. I would rate it 3.5/5 and would recommend a read.