Books

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Front cover of The Midnight Library

In a nutshell, this is a cross between Quantum Leap and Sliding Doors, with an added sprinkling of It’s a Wonderful Life. And as I enjoyed watching all of these, I really enjoyed reading this book.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that Nora Seed attempts to die. That is explained in the very first sentence. But this book is not a depressing read. It moves along at a decent clip with down to earth, matter of fact language, so when the occasional moments of poetic introspection come along, they stand out more vividly.

The Midnight Library is the place in between. Between life and death; between time; between one’s ‘root’ existence and an infinite amount of others. And when Nora Seed tries to kill herself, she is, instead, blessed with trying on a few of these other existences. She gets to work out whether all her regrets in life are merited. The two catches: she can only pick a path once, and she can only join the action from this moment on instead of when she diverged. And if it’s not the life for her, she will return to the Library.

This second catch causes a number of logistical problems, à la ‘Quantum Leap’. But it also, conveniently for the art of story-telling, speeds up the process of multi-life living, when a book of regrets as heavily weighed down as Nora’s is, needs to be explored. Less sardonically, it makes the point that even though she is stepping into her own life, it is a life that has been lived by a subtly or completely different Nora up to this point , and does she really want to skip those parts?

For example, she walks into her marriage with Dan (who, in her root life, was the fiancé she left just a couple of days before the wedding) many years after making a different decision. Where his dream of owning a pub in a bucolic setting has been realised. Sounds like a nice ready-made life to pick up doesn’t it?

The book lays out the difference between dreams and perceptions and reality. The lives that Nora explores slowly reveal what the most important things are to her, through example and a good dosing of philosophy (it’s made me want to read a bit more about Henry David Thoreau, that’s for sure).

Matt Haig gets the core idea from physics, the many worlds theory. But although he doesn’t bog you down with the science he does throw a few puns in along the way for fun. There is also the amusement of making the connections between disparate parts flung far and wide amongst the pages. Californian fires and blond boys are peripheral but give a demonstration of the interconnectedness in Nora’s many lives.

Initially I thought that Nora was an excessively high achiever: Olympic potential, offered a record contract, academically bright. And I assumed that maybe Haig created her to show that if a person like she can hit rock bottom, then anybody can. But then I realised that he was also suggesting that anybody has ‘potential’. And that was my favourite message in a book that has many really interesting things to reflect upon. Even if most of us don’t follow life’s extreme trajectories, we have the potential to matter, to be significant, to knock against the lives of others and maybe help them on a new direction.

In the words of the great Keanu Reeves, ‘It’s Quantum Baby’!

Books

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Front cover of the paperback version of Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I thought I would start reviewing the books that I read. Partly so that I read them with a little more thought, and partly so that I read them. Because for some reason, although I love books, I don’t sit down with one very much at all.

So we kick off with the middle book in a trilogy, which is a little arse about tit I grant you, but it is the latest book I’ve read and not everything can be planned so neatly.

Bring up the Bodies begins in the middle of Anne Boleyn’s brief time as Queen. Thomas Cromwell has risen up from being a Michael Cohen style fixer and is now fully established as Henry VIII’s right hand man and so far Anne has produced just one more daughter for the Crown. It carries Cromwell’s story on from Mantel’s first book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, which leaves us with Henry and Anne’s marriage and Thomas More’s execution.

We know how it ends of course, for Anne, but there is a genius in taking a piece of history well trod and documented, and bringing it to life in a whole new way. Mantel keeps the narrative in the present tense, so pushing that idea of ‘History’ back, and makes the language modern enough for our ears. On top of that, the narrator always sits just behind and occasionally inside, Cromwell’s head, so you have access to only one perspective. But that perspective happens to have an increasing reach and knowledge over the dominions of England, especially the lands and lives of the nobility. So, for the reader, this vantage point reveals a lot.

Now it is highly probable that Mantel has taken artistic licence to make this Cromwell more sympathetic than he really was. A reader will be more willingly pulled along if they’re invested in the main protagonist. There are moments, like when he looks at the first queen, Katherine, in her ‘prison’. They’re roughly the same age but he notes that ‘life is harsher for women’, especially if they ‘have been blessed with many children and seen them die’. This level of empathy may occasionally tip the suspension of disbelief a little for some but it didn’t bother me and reminded me that even Himmler loved his family.

Wolf Hall was lambasted by some historians for painting More in a detestable manner and Cromwell so positively1. But, these books from Cromwell’s point of view and they are novels after all and not a history.2 Even bona fide histories will create a ‘narrative’ and make suppositions where there are blank spaces in the facts.

Mantel’s Cromwell comes across as phlegmatic and Machiavellian – at one point it says he’s read The Prince, which in his estimation could be improved upon! He is (in his eyes necessarily) ruthless but not bloodthirsty, highly intelligent, generous and knows when to take his revenge. This book brings his character to the peak of his powers and the height of his wealth with the dissolution of the monasteries filling the coffers of the Crown.

Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein
Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century (1533-1534) – ‘When he saw the portrait finished he had said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?’

I do like history. My A-level English History covered the Tudors and I wish I’d had these books around then. I know this is a fiction but the level of research that Mantel has done to keep on top of who’s who and what their relationships are and who they’ve slept with etc. is excellent. It brings it alive in a way that would have made me want to explore the real stories more.

If history is not your bag, you may find it a little unwieldy. There are a lot of characters. Mantel does give a helpful list at the beginning but it can still get confusing sometimes. However, I wouldn’t let the details bog you down. Just sit back and let it carry you along.


1 In defence of Thomas More https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/jan/29/wolf-hall-wrong-thomas-more-was-funny-feminist

2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/31/students-take-hilary-mantels-tudor-novels-as-fact-hay-festival