Dark chocolate

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 21, 2021


The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is about a young woman called Nora on the brink of suicide. Actually, she HAS committed suicide. Instead of being swallowed by the void, however, she finds a kind of library. It’s filled with books, an infinite number of them. Each is about only one subject: Herself. Every time she opens a book, she enters a different version of her life.

I’m still reading the novel but wanted to write about it before finishing it. In some ways, whatever happens between its covers, the premise is one that leaks out and touches anyone who has ever asked themselves, “What if... I hadn’t boarded that train to Agra?” “What if I’d run off with the wild-eyed revolutionary with a jasmine flower pierced through his right earlobe?” “What if I’d been a good and hard-working student, won prizes and made my parents weep happy tears of pride?”

My particular reason for enjoying the book is that it reminds me of my first published short story. It’s called A Government of India Undertaking and is about a Bureau of Reincarnation and Transmigration of Souls. The protagonist, writing in the first person, stumbles upon the Bureau by mistake. Once inside, she wonders if it might be possible to swap her current life for a better one, without the nuisance of having to die.

Unlike my short story, The Midnight Library doesn’t merely hint at the possibilities of choosing alternative paths for one life to follow. Instead it explores each one of Nora’s potential choices in painstaking detail. In one, she achieves her dream of being an Olympic swimmer. In the other, she’s a Lady Gaga-level rockstar. The trapdoor awaiting any writer of stories like this is a too-happy ending. A matching trapdoor leads towards the ho-hum discovery of that there’s no perfect life.

Nora, in her “root life” — the one in which she commits suicide — was a philosophy scholar. This background provides her with the ideal vocabulary for existential dilemmas. At one point, she understands that she’s experiencing life as Schrödinger’s Cat — the one that’s either alive or dead inside a box, unless the box is opened — because she can go on travelling through many lives until she chooses not to. The story is its own kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, until the reader reaches the end of the book!

Regret is a hot topic of conversation. Nora’s primary burdens are her sense of worthlessness and her conviction that every choice she made was a bad one. I’ve been wondering whether a book like this would actually help someone with low self-esteem? Or would it send them spiralling further into despair and self-hate? I’ve also been wondering what I would find on the shelf marked “Regrets” in my own personal library. I’m sorry to say, though, that whenever I go looking for answers of the deep and philosophical kind, I find myself at the fridge. Top shelf, on the right. Goodbye angst! Hello chocolate.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on March 21, 2021
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