Because, Nora, sometimes the only way to learn is to live.
Many thanks to Richard Osman and Penguin Books for the chance to read this ARC, courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
This is my second Matt Haig book after The Humans which I remember enjoying as a mixture of science fiction and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime but I don’t remember many details of it. An alien taking on the form of a human, learning that humanity is messy and contradictory but ultimately worth protecting. It is rather vague. And my review, looking back on it seems a little briefer than usual too.
This book certainly has similar vibes: it takes a classic sci-fi staple – in this case the quantum idea of the multiverse which should be familiar enough to the general public and viewers of Star Trek and Marvel and DC films and Doctor Who, or to readers of Life After Life (sublime) or The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (great fun) – and marries it to that same core belief in the value of being alive and being human. It is a very life affirming novel which in these dark days is very very welcome!
Our protagonist is Nora Seed, erstwhile philosophy student, erstwhile singer / song writer, erstwhile swimmer. When we meet her, she is currently unhappily employed in the aptly named String Theory, a struggling music shop; she is estranged from her brother; she is bereft of a love life. But she does own a cat. It is her being sacked and discovering her cat’s death which leads to her deciding to take her own life – a fact which cannot be a spoiler as the opening line of the novel is “Nineteen years before she decided to die…”
Having taken an overdose – and the mechanics and effects of suicide are not elaborated on or glorified – Nora finds herself in a midnight that never ends, at a building which resolves itself into an infinitely large library whose books contain ever possible alternative life Nora could have had, had she made different decisions in her life. Had she not given up swimming, a book contained that life; had she not abandoned her dreams of working as a glaciologist or her philosophy studies or her chance to go for a coffee with a guy, there are books containing those lives. Under the kindly case of someone who looks like Mrs Elm, her old school librarian, Nora gets the chance to dip into and live those alternative versions of herself, and the chance to remain in one that makes her happy.
Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?
The library offers Nora the chance to be Scott Bakula in her own, personal version of Quantum Leap!
It is the most fantastic idea and concept! And presenting it as a library rather than, say, a video store is always going to bring a bookish nerdish joy!
Structurally, we do become a little problematic as a novel at about this point, however. The concept requires Nora to try out different lives, to explore different choices she could have made and it does become a little episodic and repetitive as a novel.
The first alternative version of herself is one where she did not split up with her fiance but supported him in realising his dream of owning a country pub. As she steps into this life – and every subsequent life – we follow her almost like a detective trying to uncover the facts she needs to be able to successfully masquerade as the ‘real’ Nora in this version of herself; we see her discover that some of the decisions she regretted in her “root life” may have actually been the right decision after all; she returns to the library re-evaluating that “root life”.
Wash – rinse – repeat.
There was some variation: many of the events in our lives are nothing to do with the decision we may or not make, after all, even if we feel responsible, but that is the core pattern.
Haig manages it well: just as it begins to feel a little repetitive he shifts things a little. He never comes close to the poetry and pathos of the Kate Atkinson, nor the thriller elements of the Claire North book, but he is doing something else wonderful: that simple reminder that life, for all its cares and worries and regrets – perhaps because of all its cares and worries and regrets – is valuable and worth living and grasping onto.
And, at the end of the day, I did come to care for Nora and loved watching her gradual development as a character which could not have happened credibly any more quickly than Haig gave us. She may be one of the quieter characters in my reading recently – but there is room in this world for those quieter characters! – but she and the novel are touching and tender.
And that is a wonderful and timely thing to be reminded of. Perhaps, once we strip away the science fiction and literary clothing, the book that this most brings to mind is Charles Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse.
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Canongate Books
Date: 13th August 2020