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I found Matt Haig by accident when I was searching for a novel that would surprise me and give me something worthwhile to think about. I had only just finished slogging through JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susanna Clarke, a thousand pages of realistic fantasy about magicians which for me at this time was like being vigorously scratched on a bad sunburn. I assume that novel is one people either love or hate, because it’s masterful in its detail of time and place and hugely subtle in its humor. But I’m currently more impatient than usual. I detested plodding through war after war and historical event after historical event, even though the perspective was clever. I started hoping the central characters—who were empathetically clueless—would be killed. Being a psychological sort of person who is only just now hoping to emerge from a year of too much political turmoil, I was looking for something intriguing and creative based on human emotion.
I chose HOW TO STOP TIME by Matt Haig for my Kindle. The fast pace felt like therapy for the read I had just endured, even though this novel likewise spanned generations. In it, a boy is born into a condition that is the opposite of aging too young. In fact, from puberty the central character ages one year to every fifteen normal human years. Think about how many years it would take to look like a grown man and what you might see or do as you try to avoid becoming a pariah for being odd. Haig, who colors his writing with philosophy and musings about music, whisked me along. I appreciate an author who pays his intellectual dues while never forgetting someone is going to sit for hours to read the result. Even though this book, too, traveled through time, it didn’t bury me in showy feats of historical minutiae. I was ready to read another Haig novel.
From the first page, I knew I would read THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY very fast. Haig’s writing feels like eating chocolate or—long ago, sigh—nachos. This time the main character Nora enters an interlife between life and death that’s a library in which every possible version of her life is recorded within an infinity of books based on the quantum theory that all possible decisions and all possible versions of ourselves do exist simultaneously in alternate universes. The librarian helps Nora try out an array of realities, investigating her regrets. I can’t say all of Haig’s descriptions are uniquely sophisticated, but the narrative is engaging even when it feels unavoidably repetitive and sidesteps obvious exits. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is most valuable for the perspectives it lured me to consider.
I have, indeed, wondered what would’ve happened if I’d joined a male friend on a trip to the Virgin Islands that I declined or attended a different graduate school or married a different man. Haig reminded me to examine the outcomes of the choices I made. I married an especially kind, good-humored man and we’ve had a long, satisfying life together. I’ve been given diverse emotional rewards for my more consequential accomplishments while the accolades I had been groomed to seek now look tawdry and superficial. I wouldn’t like being caged in fame or wealth or status. I would hate being forced to travel away from my husband and dogs for weeks on end or to attend pointless cocktail parties or self-important pseudo conversations. The stress of being a mover and shaker would surely have killed me by now. Of course, this life has had bumps and wrenching turns, but a less difficult life would’ve bored me and left me with no way to perceive what has been truly important about my existence. If you’re sometimes seduced by regrets about your life to date, try reading Haig’s book. You might breathe more easily by the time you finish.