Authors: Matt Haig
‘I’m the librarian,’ the woman said, coyly. ‘That is who.’
Her face was one of kind but stern wisdom. She had the same neat cropped grey hair she’d always had, with a face that looked precisely as it always did in Nora’s mind.
For there, right in front of her, was her old school librarian.
Mrs Elm smiled, thinly. ‘Perhaps.’
Nora remembered those rainy afternoons, playing chess.
She remembered the day her father died, when Mrs Elm gently broke the news to her in the library. Her father had died suddenly of a heart attack while on the rugby field of the boys’ boarding school where he taught. She was numb for about half an hour, and had stared blankly at the unfinished game of chess. The reality was simply too big to absorb at first, but then it had hit her hard and sideways, taking her off the track she’d known. She had hugged Mrs Elm so close, crying into her polo neck until her face was raw from the fusion of tears and acrylic.
Mrs Elm had held her, stroking and smoothing the back of her head like a baby, not offering platitudes or false comforts or
anything other than concern. She remembered Mrs Elm’s voice telling her at the time: ‘Things will get better, Nora. It’s going to be all right.’
It was over an hour before Nora’s mother came to pick her up, her brother stoned and numb in the backseat. And Nora had sat in the front next to her mute, trembling mother, saying that she loved her, but hearing nothing back.
‘What is this place? Where am I?’
Mrs Elm smiled a very formal kind of smile. ‘A library, of course.’
‘It’s not the school library. And there’s no exit. Am I dead? Is this the afterlife?’
‘Not exactly,’ said Mrs Elm.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Then let me explain.’
The Midnight Library
As she spoke, Mrs Elm’s eyes came alive, twinkling like puddles in moonlight.
‘Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’
dead?’ Nora asked.
Mrs Elm shook her head. ‘No. Listen carefully.
life and death.’ She gestured vaguely along the aisle, towards the distance. ‘Death is outside.’
‘Well, I should go there. Because I want to die.’ Nora began walking.
But Mrs Elm shook her head. ‘That isn’t how death works.’
to death. Death comes to you.’
Even death was something Nora couldn’t do properly, it seemed.
It was a familiar feeling. This feeling of being incomplete in just about every sense. An unfinished jigsaw of a human. Incomplete living and incomplete dying.
‘So why am I not dead? Why has death not come to me? I gave it an open invitation. I’d wanted to die. But here I am, still existing. I am still aware of things.’
‘Well, if it’s any comfort, you are very possibly
to die. People who pass by the library usually don’t stay long, one way or the other.’
When she thought about it – and increasingly she had been thinking about it – Nora was only able to think of herself in terms of the things she wasn’t. The things she hadn’t been able to become. And there really were quite a lot of things she hadn’t become. The regrets which were on permanent repeat in her mind.
I haven’t become an Olympic swimmer. I haven’t become a glaciologist. I haven’t become Dan’s wife. I haven’t become a mother. I haven’t become the lead singer of The Labyrinths. I haven’t managed to become a truly good or truly happy person. I haven’t managed to look after Voltaire
. And now, last of all, she hadn’t even managed to become dead. It was pathetic really, the amount of possibilities she had squandered.
‘While the Midnight Library stands, Nora, you will be preserved from death. Now, you have to decide how you want to live.’
The Moving Shelves
The shelves on either side of Nora began to move. The shelves didn’t change angles, they just kept on sliding horizontally. It was possible that the shelves weren’t moving at all, but the books were, and it wasn’t obvious why or even
. There was no visible mechanism making it happen, and no sound or sight of books falling off the end – or rather the
– of the shelf. The books slid by at varying degrees of slowness, depending on the shelf they were on, but none moved fast.
Mrs Elm’s expression stiffened and her posture straightened, her chin retreating a little into her neck. She took a step closer to Nora and clasped her hands together. ‘It is time, my dear, to begin.’
‘If you don’t mind me asking – begin
‘Every life contains many millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. These books are portals to all the lives you could be living.’
‘You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library. They are all as real as this life.’
‘Not always parallel. Some are more . . .
. So, do
you want to live a life you could be living? Do you want to do something differently? Is there anything you wish to change? Did you do anything wrong?’
That was an easy one. ‘Yes. Absolutely everything.’
The answer seemed to tickle the librarian’s nose.
Mrs Elm quickly rummaged for the paper tissue that was stuffed up the inside sleeve of her polo neck. She brought it quickly to her face and sneezed into it.
‘Bless you,’ said Nora, watching as the tissue disappeared from the librarian’s hands the moment she’d finished using it, through some strange and hygienic magic.
‘Don’t worry. Tissues are like lives. There are always more.’ Mrs Elm returned to her train of thought. ‘Doing one thing differently is often the same as doing
differently. Actions can’t be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try . . . But you are no longer
a lifetime. You have popped outside. This is your opportunity, Nora, to see how things could be.’
This can’t be real
, Nora thought to herself.
Mrs Elm seemed to know what she was thinking.
‘Oh, it is real, Nora Seed. But it is not quite reality as you understand it. For want of a better word, it is
. It is not life. It is not death. It is not the real world in a conventional sense. But nor is it a dream. It isn’t one thing or another. It is, in short, the Midnight Library.’
The slow-moving shelves came to a halt. Nora noticed that on one of the shelves, to her right, at shoulder height, there was a large gap. All the other areas of the shelves around her had the books tightly pressed side-by-side, but here, lying flat on the thin, white shelf, there was only one book.
And this book wasn’t green like the others. It was grey. As grey as the stone of the front of the building when she had seen it through the mist.
Mrs Elm took the book from the shelf and handed it to Nora.
She had a slight look of anticipatory pride, as if she’d handed her a Christmas present.
It had seemed light when Mrs Elm was holding it, but it was far heavier than it looked. Nora went to open it.
Mrs Elm shook her head.
‘You always have to wait for my say-so.’
‘Every book in here, every book in this entire library – except one – is a version of your life. This library is yours. It is here for you. You see, everyone’s lives could have ended up an infinite number of ways. These books on the shelves are your life, all starting from the same point in time. Right now. Midnight. Tuesday the twenty-eighth of April. But these midnight possibilities aren’t the same. Some are similar, some are very different.’
‘This is crackers,’ said Nora. ‘Except
? This one?’ Nora tilted the stone-grey book towards Mrs Elm.
Mrs Elm raised an eyebrow. ‘Yes. That one. It’s something you have written without ever having to type a word.’
‘This book is the source of all your problems, and the answer to them too.’
‘But what is it?’
‘It is called, my dear,
The Book of Regrets
The Book of Regrets
Nora stared at it. She could see it now. The small typeface embossed on the cover.
The Book of Regrets
‘Every regret you have ever had, since the day you were born, is recorded in here,’ Mrs Elm said, tapping her finger on the cover. ‘I now give you permission to open it.’
As the book was so heavy Nora sat down cross-legged on the stone floor to do so. She began to skim through it.
The book was divided into chapters, chronologically arranged around the years of her life. 0, 1, 2, 3, all the way up to 35. The chapters got much longer as the book progressed, year by year. But the regrets she accumulated weren’t specifically related to that year in question.
‘Regrets ignore chronology. They float around. The sequence of these lists changes all the time.’
‘Right, yes, that makes sense, I suppose.’
She quickly realised they ranged from the minor and quotidian (‘I regret not doing any exercise today’) to the substantial (‘I regret not telling my father I loved him before he died’).
There were continual, background regrets, which repeated on multiple pages. ‘I regret not staying in The Labyrinths, because I let down my brother.’ ‘I regret not staying in The Labyrinths, because I let down myself.’ ‘I regret not doing more for the environment.’ ‘I regret the time I spent on social media.’ ‘I regret not
going to Australia with Izzy.’ ‘I regret not having more fun when I was younger.’ ‘I regret all those arguments with Dad.’ ‘I regret not working with animals.’ ‘I regret not doing Geology at University instead of Philosophy.’ ‘I regret not learning how to be a happier person.’ ‘I regret feeling so much guilt.’ ‘I regret not sticking at Spanish.’ ‘I regret not choosing science subjects in my A-levels.’ ‘I regret not becoming a glaciologist.’ ‘I regret not getting married.’ ‘I regret not applying to do a Master’s degree in Philosophy at Cambridge.’ ‘I regret not keeping healthy.’ ‘I regret moving to London.’ ‘I regret not going to Paris to teach English.’ ‘I regret not finishing the novel I started at university.’ ‘I regret moving out of London.’ ‘I regret having a job with no prospects.’ ‘I regret not being a better sister.’ ‘I regret not having a gap year after university.’ ‘I regret disappointing my father.’ ‘I regret that I teach piano more than I play it.’ ‘I regret my financial mismanagement.’ ‘I regret not living in the countryside.’
Some regrets were a little fainter than others. One regret shifted from practically invisible to bold and back again, as if it was flashing on and off, right there as she looked at it. The regret was ‘I regret not yet having children.’
‘That is a regret that sometimes is and sometimes isn’t,’ explained Mrs Elm, again somehow reading her mind. ‘There are a few of those.’
From the age of 34 onwards, in the longest chapter at the end of the book, there were a lot of Dan-specific regrets. These were quite strong and bold, and played in her head like an ongoing fortissimo chord in a Haydn concerto.
‘I regret being cruel to Dan.’ ‘I regret breaking up with Dan.’ ‘I regret not living in a country pub with Dan.’
As she stared down at the pages, she thought now of the man she had so nearly married.
She’d met Dan while living with Izzy in Tooting. Big smile, short beard. Visually, a TV vet. Fun, curious. He drank quite a bit, but always seemed immune to hangovers.
He had studied Art History and put his in-depth knowledge of Rubens and Tintoretto to incredible use by becoming head of PR for a brand of protein flapjacks. He did, however, have a dream. And his dream was to run a pub in the countryside. A dream he wanted to share with her. With Nora.
And she got carried away with his enthusiasm. Got engaged. But suddenly she had realised she didn’t want to marry him.
Deep down, she was scared of becoming her mother. She didn’t want to replicate her parents’ marriage.
Still staring blankly at
The Book of Regrets
, she wondered if her parents had ever been in love or if they had got married because marriage was something you did at the appropriate time with the nearest available person. A game where you grabbed the first person you could find when the music stopped.
She had never wanted to play that game.
Bertrand Russell wrote that ‘To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three-parts dead’. Maybe that was her problem. Maybe she was just scared of living. But Bertrand Russell had more marriages and affairs than hot dinners, so perhaps he was no one to give advice.
When her mum died three months before the wedding Nora’s grief was immense. Though she had suggested that the date should be
put back, it somehow never was, and Nora’s grief fused with depression and anxiety and the feeling that her life was out of her own control. The wedding seemed such a symptom of this chaotic feeling, that she felt tied to a train track, and the only way she could loosen the ropes and free herself was to pull out of the wedding. Though, in reality, staying in Bedford and being single, and letting Izzy down about their Australia plans, and starting work at String Theory, and getting a cat, had all felt like the opposite of freedom.
‘Oh no,’ said Mrs Elm, breaking Nora’s thoughts. ‘It’s too much for you.’
And suddenly she was back feeling all this contrition, all that pain of letting people down and letting herself down, the pain she had tried to escape less than an hour ago. The regrets began to swarm together. In fact, while staring at the open pages of the book, the pain was actually worse than it had been wandering around Bedford. The power of all the regrets simultaneously emanating from the book was becoming agony. The weight of guilt and remorse and sorrow too strong. She leaned back on her elbows, dropped the heavy book and squeezed her eyes shut. She could hardly breathe, as if invisible hands were around her neck.