Authors: Matt Haig
In one life she had a teenage son called Henry, who she never met properly because he kept slamming doors in her face.
In one life she was a concert pianist, currently on tour in Scandinavia, playing night after night to besotted crowds (and fading into the Midnight Library during one disastrous rendition of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki).
In one life she only ate toast.
In one life she went to Oxford and became a lecturer in Philosophy at St Catherine’s College and lived by herself in a fine Georgian townhouse in a genteel row, amid an environment of respectable calm.
In another life Nora was a sea of emotion. She felt everything deeply and directly. Every joy and every sorrow. A single moment could contain both intense pleasure and intense pain, as if both were dependent on each other, like a pendulum in motion. A simple walk outside and she could feel a heavy sadness simply because the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Yet, conversely, meeting a dog who was clearly grateful for her attention caused her to feel so exultant that she felt she could melt into the pavement with sheer bliss. In that life she had a book of Emily Dickinson poems beside her bed and she had a playlist called ‘Extreme States of Euphoria’ and another one called ‘The Glue to Fix Me When I Am Broken’.
In one life she was a travel vlogger who had 1,750,000 YouTube subscribers and almost as many people following her on Instagram, and her most popular video was one where she fell off a gondola
in Venice. She also had one about Rome called ‘A Roma Therapy’.
In one life she was a single parent to a baby that literally wouldn’t sleep.
In one life she ran the showbiz column in a tabloid newspaper and did stories about Ryan Bailey’s relationships.
In one life she was the picture editor at the
In one life she was a successful eco-architect who lived a carbon-neutral existence in a self-designed bungalow that harvested rain-water and ran on solar power.
In one life she was an aid worker in Botswana.
In one life a cat-sitter.
In one life a volunteer in a homeless shelter.
In one life she was sleeping on her only friend’s sofa.
In one life she taught music in Montreal.
In one life she spent all day arguing with people she didn’t know on Twitter and ended a fair proportion of her tweets by saying ‘Do better’ while secretly realising she was telling herself to do that.
In one life she had no social media accounts.
In one life she’d never drunk alcohol.
In one life she was a chess champion and currently visiting Ukraine for a tournament.
In one life she was married to a minor Royal and hated every minute.
In one life her Facebook and Instagram only contained quotes from Rumi and Lao Tzu.
In one life she was on to her third husband and already bored.
In one life she was a vegan power-lifter.
In one life she was travelling around South America and caught up in an earthquake in Chile.
In one life she had a friend called Becky, who said ‘Oh what larks!’ whenever anything good was happening.
In one life she met Hugo yet again, diving off the Corsican coast, and they talked quantum mechanics and got drunk together at a
beachside bar until Hugo slipped away, out of that life, mid-sentence, so Nora was left talking to a blank Hugo who was trying to remember her name.
In some lives Nora attracted a lot of attention. In some lives she attracted none. In some lives she was rich. In some lives she was poor. In some lives she was healthy. In some lives she couldn’t climb the stairs without getting out of breath. In some lives she was in a relationship, in others she was solo, in many she was somewhere in between. In some lives she was a mother, but in most she wasn’t.
She had been a rock star, an Olympian, a music teacher, a primary school teacher, a professor, a CEO, a PA, a chef, a glaciologist, a climatologist, an acrobat, a tree-planter, an audit manager, a hair-dresser, a professional dog walker, an office clerk, a software developer, a receptionist, a hotel cleaner, a politician, a lawyer, a shoplifter, the head of an ocean protection charity, a shop worker (again), a waitress, a first-line supervisor, a glass-blower and a thousand other things. She’d had horrendous commutes in cars, on buses, in trains, on ferries, on bike, on foot. She’d had emails and emails and emails. She’d had a fifty-three-year-old boss with halitosis touch her leg under a table and text her a photo of his penis. She’d had colleagues who lied about her, and colleagues who loved her, and (mainly) colleagues who were entirely indifferent. In many lives she chose not to work and in some she didn’t choose not to work but still couldn’t find any. In some lives she smashed through the glass ceiling and in some she just polished it. She had been excessively over- and under-qualified. She had slept brilliantly and terribly. In some lives she was on anti-depressants and in others she didn’t even take ibuprofen for a headache. In some lives she was a physically healthy hypochondriac and in some a seriously ill hypochondriac and in most she wasn’t a hypochondriac at all. There was a life where she had chronic fatigue, a life where she had cancer, a life where she’d suffered a herniated disc and broken her ribs in a car accident.
There had, in short, been a lot of lives.
And among those lives she had laughed and cried and felt calm and terrified and everything in between.
And between these lives she always saw Mrs Elm in the library.
And at first it seemed that the more lives she experienced, the fewer problems there seemed to be with the transfer. The library never felt like it was on the brink of crumbling or falling apart or at risk of disappearing completely. The lights didn’t even flicker through many of the changeovers. It was as though she had reached some state of acceptance about life – that if there was a bad experience, there wouldn’t
be bad experiences. She realised that she hadn’t tried to end her life because she was miserable, but because she had managed to convince herself that there was no way out of her misery.
That, she supposed, was the basis of depression as well as the difference between fear and despair. Fear was when you wandered into a cellar and worried that the door would close shut. Despair was when the door closed and locked behind you.
But with every life she saw that metaphorical door widen a little further as she grew better at using her imagination. Sometimes she was in a life for less than a minute, while in others she was there for days or weeks. It seemed the more lives she lived, the harder it was to feel at home anywhere.
The trouble was that eventually Nora began to lose any sense of who she was. Like a whispered word passed around from ear to ear, even her name began to sound like just a noise, signifying nothing.
‘It’s not working,’ she told Hugo, in her last proper conversation with him, in that beach bar in Corsica. ‘It’s not fun any more. I am not you. I need somewhere to stay. But the ground is never stable.’
‘The fun is in the jumping, mon amie.’
‘But what if it’s in the landing?’
And that was the moment he had returned to his purgatorial video store.
‘I’m sorry,’ his other self said, as he sipped his wine and the sun set behind him, ‘I’ve forgotten who you are.’
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘So have I.’
As she too faded away like the sun that had just been swallowed by the horizon.
Lost in the Library
‘Yes, Nora, what’s the matter?’
‘I had noticed.’
‘That’s not a good sign, is it?’
‘No,’ said Mrs Elm, sounding flustered. ‘You know perfectly well it’s not a good sign.’
‘I can’t go on.’
‘You always say that.’
‘I have run out of lives. I have been everything. And yet I always end up back here. There is always something that stops my enjoyment. Always. I feel ungrateful.’
‘Well, you shouldn’t. And you haven’t run out of anything.’ Mrs Elm paused to sigh. ‘Did you know that every time you choose a book it never returns to the shelves?’
‘Which is why you can never go back into a life you have tried. There always needs to be some . . . variation on a theme. In the Midnight Library, you can’t take the same book out twice.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Well, even in the dark you know these shelves are as full as the last time you looked. Feel them, if you like.’
Nora didn’t feel them. ‘Yeah. I know they are.’
‘They’re exactly as full as they were when you first arrived here, aren’t they?’
‘That means there are still as many possible lives out there for you as there ever were. An infinite number, in fact. You can never run out of possibilities.’
‘But you can run out of wanting them.’
There was a pause, in the darkness. Nora pressed the small light on her watch, just to check.
‘I think,’ Mrs Elm said eventually, ‘if I may say so without being rude – I think you might have lost your way a little bit.’
‘Isn’t that why I came to the Midnight Library in the first place? Because I had lost my way?’
. But now you are lost
within your lostness
. Which is to say, very lost indeed. You are not going to find the way you want to live like this.’
‘What if there was never a way? What if I am . . . trapped?’
‘So long as there are still books on the shelves, you are never trapped. Every book is a potential escape.’
‘I just don’t understand life,’ sulked Nora.
‘You don’t have to
life. You just have to
Nora shook her head. This was a bit too much for a Philosophy graduate to take.
‘But I don’t want to be like this,’ Nora told her. ‘I don’t want to be like Hugo. I don’t want to keep flicking between lives for ever.’
‘All right. Then you need to listen carefully to me. Now, do you want my advice or don’t you?’
‘Well, yeah. Of course. It feels a little late, but yes, Mrs Elm, I would be very grateful for your advice on this.’
‘Right. Well. I think you have reached a point where you can’t see the wood for the trees.’
‘I’m not quite sure what you mean.’
‘You are right to think of these lives like a piano where you’re
playing tunes that aren’t really you. You are forgetting who you are. In becoming everyone, you are becoming no one. You are forgetting your root life. You are forgetting what worked for you and what didn’t. You are forgetting your regrets.’
‘I’ve been through my regrets.’
‘No. Not all of them.’
‘Well, not every single minor one. No, obviously.’
‘You need to look at
The Book of Regrets
‘How can I do that in the pitch dark?’
‘Because you already know the whole book. Because it’s inside you. Just as . . . just as I am.’
She remembered Dylan telling her he had seen Mrs Elm near the care home. She thought about telling her this but decided against it. ‘Right.’
‘We only know what we perceive. Everything we experience is ultimately just our perception of it. “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”’
‘You know Thoreau?’
‘Of course. If you do.’
‘The thing is, I don’t know what I regret any more.’
‘Okay, well, let’s see. You say that I am just a perception. Then why did you perceive me? Why am I – Mrs Elm – the person you see?’
‘I don’t know. Because you were someone I trusted. You were kind to me.’
‘Kindness is a strong force.’
‘You might be looking in the wrong places.’
The dark was punctured by the slow rising glow of the light bulbs all around the library.
‘So where else in your root life have you felt that? Kindness?’
Nora remembered the night Ash knocked on her door. Maybe
lifting a dead cat off the road and carrying it in the rain around to her flat’s tiny back garden and then burying it on her behalf because she was sobbing drunkenly with grief wasn’t the most archetypally romantic thing in the world. But it certainly qualified as kind, to take forty minutes out of your run and help someone in need while only accepting a glass of water in return.
She hadn’t really been able to appreciate that kindness at the time. Her grief and despair had been too strong. But now she thought about it, it had really been quite remarkable.
‘I think I know,’ she said. ‘It was right there in front of me, the night before I tried to kill myself.’
‘Yesterday evening, you mean?’
‘I suppose. Yes. Ash. The surgeon. The one who found Volts. Who once asked me out for coffee. Years ago. When I was with Dan. I’d said no, well, because I was with Dan. But what if I hadn’t been? What if I had broken up with Dan and gone on that coffee date and had dared, on a Saturday, with all the shop watching, to say yes to a coffee? Because there must be a life in which I was single in that moment and where I said what I wanted to say. Where I said, ‘‘Yes, I would like to go for a coffee sometime, Ash, that would be lovely.’’ Where I picked Ash. I’d like to have a go at that life. Where would that have taken me?’
And in the dark she heard the familiar sound of the shelves beginning to move, slowly, with a creak, then faster, smoother, until Mrs Elm spotted the book, the life, in question.
A Pearl in the Shell
She opened her eyes from a shallow sleep and the first thing she noticed was that she was incredibly tired. She could see a picture on the wall, in the dark. She could just about make out that the picture was a mildly abstract interpretation of a tree. Not a tall and spindly tree. Something short and wide and flowery.
There was a man next to her, asleep. It was impossible to tell, as he was turned away from her, in the dark, and given that he was largely hidden under the duvet, whether this man was Ash.
Somehow this felt weirder than usual. Of course, to be in bed with a man who she hadn’t done anything more with than bury a cat and have a few interesting conversations from behind the counter of a music shop should have felt slightly strange in the normal run of things. But since entering the Midnight Library Nora had slowly got used to the peculiar.