Read The Midnight Library Online
Authors: Matt Haig
‘Oh. Yeah, well, that might be bad. But it might not be. You do realise there are infinite possibilities here? I mean, the multiverse isn’t about just some universes. It’s not about a handful of universes. It’s not even about a lot of universes. It’s not about a million or a billion or a trillion universes. It’s about an
number of universes. Even with you in them. You could be you in any version of the world, however unlikely that world would be. You are only limited by your imagination. You can be very creative with the regrets you want to undo. I once undid a regret about not doing something I’d contemplated as a teenager – doing aerospace engineering and becoming an astronaut – and so in one life I became an astronaut. I haven’t been to space. But I became someone who had been there, for a little while. The thing you have to remember is that this is an opportunity and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made, live any life we want. Any life. Dream big . . . You can be anything you want to be. Because in one life, you are.’
She sipped her coffee. ‘I understand.’
‘But you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life,’ he said, wisely.
‘You’re quoting Camus.’
‘You got me.’
He was staring at her. Nora no longer minded his intensity, but was becoming a little concerned about her own. ‘I was a Philosophy student,’ she said, as blandly as she could manage, avoiding his eyes.
He was close to her now. There was something equally annoying and attractive about Hugo. He exuded an arrogant amorality that
made his face something to either slap or kiss, depending on the circumstances.
‘In one life we have known each other for years and are married . . .’ he said.
‘In most lives I don’t know you at all,’ she countered, now staring straight at him.
‘That’s so sad.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Really.’ She smiled.
‘We’re special, Nora. We’re chosen. No one understands us.’
‘No one understands anyone. We’re not chosen.’
‘The only reason I am still in this life is because of you . . .’
She lunged forward and kissed him.
If Something Is Happening to Me, I Want to Be There
It was a very pleasant sensation. Both the kiss, and the knowledge she could be this forward. Being aware that everything that could possibly happen happened to her somewhere, in some life, kind of absolved her a little from decisions. That was just the reality of the universal wave function. Whatever was happening could – she reasoned – be put down to quantum physics.
‘I don’t share a room,’ he said.
She stared at him fearlessly now, as if facing down a polar bear had given her a certain capacity for dominance she’d never been aware of. ‘Well, Hugo, maybe you could break the habit.’
But the sex turned out to be a disappointment. A Camus quote came to her, right in the middle of it.
I may have not been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t
It probably wasn’t the best sign of how their nocturnal encounter was going, that she was thinking of Existential philosophy, or that this quote in particular was the one that appeared in her mind. But hadn’t Camus also said, ‘If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there’?
Hugo, she concluded, was a strange person. For a man who had been so intimate and deep in his conversation, he was very detached from the moment. Maybe if you lived as many lives as he had, the only person you really had any kind of intimate relationship with was yourself. She felt like she might not have been there at all.
And in a few moments, she wasn’t.
God and Other Librarians
‘Who are you?’
‘You know my name. I am Mrs Elm. Louise Isabel Elm.’
‘Are you God?’
She smiled. ‘I am who I am.’
‘And who is that?’
‘But you aren’t a real person. You’re just a . . .
‘Aren’t we all?’
‘Not like that. You are the product of some strange interaction between my mind and the multiverse, some simplification of the quantum wave function or whatever it is.’
Mrs Elm looked perturbed by the suggestion. ‘What is the matter?’
Nora thought of the polar bear as she stared down at the yellow-brown stone floor. ‘I nearly died.’
‘And remember, if you die in a life, there is no way back here.’
‘That’s not fair.’
‘The library has strict rules. Books are precious. You have to treat them carefully.’
‘But these are other lives. Other variants of me. Not
‘Yes, but while
are experiencing them, it is
who has to pay the consequences.’
‘Well, I think that stinks, to be perfectly honest.’
The librarian’s smile curled at its edges, like a fallen leaf. ‘Well, this is interesting.’
‘What is interesting?’
‘The fact that you have so thoroughly changed your attitude towards dying.’
‘You wanted to die and now you don’t.’
It dawned on Nora that Mrs Elm might be close to having a point, although not quite the whole point. ‘Well, I still think my actual life isn’t worth living. In fact, this experience has just managed to confirm that.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think you think that.’
‘I do think that. That’s why I said it.’
The Book of Regrets
is getting lighter. There’s a lot of white space in there now . . . It seems that you have spent all your life saying things that you aren’t really thinking. This is one of your barriers.’
‘Yes. You have a lot of them. They stop you from seeing the truth.’
‘About yourself. And you really need to start trying. To see the truth. Because this matters.’
‘I thought there were an infinite number of lives to choose from.’
‘You need to pick the life you’d be most happy inside. Or soon there won’t be a choice at all.’
‘I met someone who has been doing this for a long time and he still hasn’t found a life that he is satisfied with . . .’
‘Well, Hugo’s is a privilege you might not have.’
‘Hugo? How do you—’
But then she remembered Mrs Elm knew a lot more than she should.
‘You need to choose carefully,’ continued the librarian. ‘One day the library may not be here and you’ll be gone for ever.’
‘How many lives do I have?’
‘This isn’t a magic lamp and I am no genie. There is no set
number. It could be one. It could be a hundred. But you only have an infinite number of lives to choose from so long as the time in the Midnight Library stays, well, at
. Because while it stays at midnight, your life – your root life – is somewhere between life and death. If time moves here, that means something very . . .’ She searched for a delicate word. ‘. . .
has happened. Something that razes the Midnight Library to the ground, and takes us with it. And so I would err on the side of caution. I would try to think very keenly about where you want to be. You have clearly made some progress, I can tell. You seem to realise that life could be worth living, if only you found the right one to exist inside. But you don’t want that gate to close before you get a chance to go through it.’
They both were silent for a very long time, as Nora observed all the books all around her. All the possibilities. Calmly and slowly, she walked along the aisle, wondering what lay beyond the covers of each book, and wishing the green spines would offer some kind of clue.
‘Now, which book do you fancy?’ came Mrs Elm’s words behind her.
Nora remembered Hugo’s words in the kitchen.
The librarian had a penetrating gaze. ‘Who
Nora Seed? And what does she want?’
When Nora thought of her closest access to happiness, it was music. Yes, she still played the piano and keyboard sometimes, but she had given up
. She had given up singing. She thought of those happy early pub gigs playing ‘Beautiful Sky’. She thought of her brother larking about on stage with her and Ravi and Ella.
So now she knew precisely which book to ask for.
She was sweating. That was the first observation. Her body was coursing with adrenaline and her clothes were clinging to her. There were people around her, a couple of whom had guitars. She could hear noise. Vast, powerful human noise – a roar of life slowly finding rhythm and shape. Becoming a chant.
There was a woman in front of her, towelling her face.
‘Thanks,’ Nora said, smiling.
The woman looked startled, as if she’d just been spoken to by a god.
She recognised a man holding drumsticks. It was Ravi. His hair was dyed white-blonde and he was dressed in a sharp-cut indigo suit with a bare chest where his shirt should have been. He looked an entirely different person to the one who had been looking at the music magazines in the newsagent’s in Bedford only yesterday, or the corporate-looking guy in the blue shirt who had sat watching her do her catastrophic talk in the InterContinental Hotel.
‘Ravi,’ she said, ‘you look amazing!’
He hadn’t heard her over the noise, but now she had a different question.
‘Where is Joe?’ she asked, almost as a shout.
Ravi looked momentarily confused, or scared, and Nora braced herself for some terrible truth. But none came.
‘The usual, I reckon. Schmoozing it up with the foreign press.’
Nora had no idea what was going on. He seemed to be still part of the band, but also not in the band enough to be performing on
stage with them. And if he
in the band, then whatever had caused him to leave the band hadn’t caused him to disappear completely. From what Ravi said, and the way he said it, Joe was still very much part of the team. Ella wasn’t there, though. On bass was a large muscly man with a shaved head and tattoos. She wanted to know more, but now was clearly not the time.
Ravi swept his hand through the air, gesturing towards what Nora could now see was a very large stage.
She was overwhelmed. She didn’t know what to feel.
‘Encore time,’ said Ravi.
Nora tried to think. It had been a long time since she had performed
. And even then it was only in front of a crowd of about twelve uninterested people in a pub basement.
Ravi leaned in. ‘You okay, Nora?’
It seemed a bit brittle. The way he said her name seemed to contain the same kind of resentment she’d heard when she’d bumped into him yesterday, in that very different life.
‘Yes,’ she said, full shouting now. ‘Of course. It’s just . . . I have no idea what we should do for the encore.’
Ravi shrugged. ‘Same as always.’
‘Hmm. Yeah. Right.’ Nora tried to think. She looked out at the stage. She saw a giant video screen with the words THE LABYRINTHS flashing and rotating out to the roaring crowd.
. Proper, stadium-level big. She saw a keyboard and the stool she had been sitting at. Her bandmates whose names she didn’t know were about to walk back on stage.
‘Where are we again?’ she asked, above the crowd noise. ‘I’ve gone blank.’
The big shaven-headed guy holding the bass told her: ‘São Paulo.’
‘We’re in Brazil?’
They looked at her as if she was mad.
‘Where have you been the last four days?’
‘“Beautiful Sky”,’ said Nora, realising she could probably still remember most of the words. ‘Let’s do that.’
’ Ravi laughed, his face shining with sweat. ‘We did it ten minutes ago.’
‘Okay. Listen,’ said Nora, her voice now a shout over the crowd demanding an encore. ‘I was thinking we do something different. Mix it up. I wondered if we could do a different song to usual.’
‘We have to do “Howl”,’ said the other band member. A turquoise lead guitar strapped around her. ‘We always do “Howl”.’
Nora had never heard of ‘Howl’ in her life.
‘Yeah, I know,’ she bluffed, ‘but let’s mix it up. Let’s do something they aren’t expecting. Let’s surprise them.’
‘You’re overthinking this, Nora,’ said Ravi.
‘I have no other type of thinking available.’
Ravi shrugged. ‘So, what should we do?’
Nora struggled to think. She thought of Ash – with his Simon & Garfunkel guitar songbook. ‘Let’s do “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.’
Ravi was incredulous. ‘What?’
‘I think we should do that. It will surprise people.’
‘I love that song,’ said the female bandmate. ‘And I know it.’
‘Everyone knows it, Imani,’ Ravi said, dismissively.
‘Exactly,’ Nora said, trying her hardest to sound like a rock star, ‘let’s do it.’
Nora walked onto the stage.
At first she couldn’t see the faces, because the lights were pointing towards her, and beyond that glare everything seemed like darkness. Except for a mesmerising milky way of camera flashes and phone torches.
She could hear them, though.
Human beings when there’s enough of them together acting in total unison become something else. The collective roar made her think of another kind of animal entirely. It was at first kind of threatening, as if she was Hercules facing the many-headed Hydra who wanted to kill him, but this was a roar of total support, and the power of it gave her a kind of strength.
She realised, in that moment, that she was capable of a lot more than she had known.
Wild and Free
She reached the keyboard, sat down on the stool and brought the microphone a little closer.
‘Thank you, São Paulo,’ she said. ‘We love you.’
And Brazil roared back.
This, it seemed, was power. The power of fame. Like those pop icons she had seen on social media, who could say a single word and get a million likes and shares. Total fame was when you reached the point where looking like a hero, or genius, or god, required minimal effort. But the flipside was that it was precarious. It could be equally easy to fall and look like a devil or a villain, or just an arse.