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A purgatory made up of books

If books continue to be your most loved forms of engagement and escape, a Purgatorial library space seems well-nigh perfect
Representational image.

Sajni Mukherji   |     |   Published 04.06.21, 04:19 AM

Book: The Midnight Library
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate
Price: Rs 599

We first meet the engaging heroine of this fantasy on the brink of suicide. She has majored in philosophy and has, as we find out through the novel, many other areas of talent and knowledge. She is kind to an elderly neighbour, loves her cat, might have been an Olympic-level swimmer, a glaciologist, has sufficient musical talent to be a teacher of classical music or a rock star. We hear of an almost-husband with whom the opening and running of a pub had been planned, deserted just ahead of the wedding, a friend with whom she would have gone to Australia but cried off at the eleventh hour, a band with her brother that she deserted... like most of us, she is a poor finisher, doesn’t realize her best talents and settles for mediocrity at most times.


At the point at which we get to know her, she has contemplated and settled on suicide as the only course of action ahead for her. The book will now be a journey to the moment when she will recall Sartre: “Life begins on the other side of despair.” We sense the protagonist’s personality traits, one of which is a self-deprecatory sense of humour. There are titles of chapters to the rest of her life as we live through them with her that are longer than the contents of the chapters. It is in some sense a moral tale: juxtaposed with the everyday world, fantasy must sometimes take on this role of a parable, a road map, a space of the possible, and Nora must use her level of receptivity and a wacky self-appraisal to find it.

Do your despair, hopelessness, pessimism take a quantum leap as the moment draws nearer, especially if you have decided to take your own life? Most of us have experienced moments before a loved one passes on when he/she seems to be clearly seeing inside the room close relatives or friends who have died a long time ago. Are these psychic, pre-death moments or do they belong to the mystique in which by habit and custom we allow ourselves to perceive death?

This is also a book about ‘whatifery’. Old ladies of both sexes (as Dickens would have said) tell us there is a moment in the move from life to death when your whole life flashes before you. In the past year, with the seemingly endless time that the pandemic has handed to us, we have reviewed our lives in the strange negotiation with possible death that has accompanied the spectre of Covid-19 taking over our worlds. We have asked ourselves many questions: how would I rather have lived my life? What if I had married that other wonderful person I knew instead? How much better off would I have been if I had not married at all? Do I wish I had been kinder to someone or told him/her how much love I felt? Could I have been a world-class athlete? A rock star? Run a pub? Run a vineyard? Gone to the North Pole as a glaciologist? Were these my dreams or those of ‘other’ people who took over my life? What if I had married less and travelled more?

Questions such as these have a purgatorial quality. In the space between life and death, there is a moment of truth as there must be between Inferno and Paradiso. And as Dante had Virgil to guide him through this strange space, our protagonist has the firm but gentle and enabling librarian, Mrs Elm, from her schooldays to take her through a library with moving shelves of green books filled with the multiverse of regrets and the parallel lives of her own personal ‘whatifery’. “Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you made other choices... Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?” Immediately she is removed from the gravitational pull of the black hole that has been dragging her into its dark reality.

It is not an easy journey. There are failed re-entries into lives she might have desired earlier but with each return to the library she has gained self-knowledge, not infrequently with self-deprecatory humour. It is thus a richly lived experience of retrieval. Her whole life doesn’t flash past like a pageant; there are informed, proactive entries and exits into their possibilities, a reassessment of failure and success, relationships that continue to evolve until she reaches an understanding that precludes the need for praise or blame. Perhaps the knowledge that the object of the exercise may not necessarily mean greater happiness is the biggest lesson learnt, although there are others: “… the more people were connected on social media the lonelier they became.” Seeing her own life and the worlds around her akin to the sacred Yggdrasil tree is another.


The chapters are long or short, encapsulating the moments as they pass by and also the relative speeds of the passing of time. Sometimes a chapter is long, when she makes a long speech from the lessons she has learnt; sometimes the chapter title is longer than the content of the chapter. “‘Oh, fuck,’ whispered Nora, into the cold.”

Mrs Elm, the librarian, guide and guardian angel, often appears to have god-like power but here too Nora’s growing up makes her more argumentative and confrontational with the librarian as she becomes readier to face the world again and makes her peace with the people who inhabit it, most of all, herself. The secret midnight place, both library and cathedral, is the perfect Purgatorial passage for someone of her intellect and capability.

If books continue to be your most loved forms of engagement and escape, a Purgatorial library space seems well-nigh perfect. The idea is exquisite: the execution just might have gone on a little longer than necessary.

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