‘The Midnight Library,’ by Matt Haig: An Excerpt

System Error

She arrived back in the Midnight Library.

But this time she was a little away from the bookshelves. This was the loosely defined office area she had glimpsed earlier, in one of the broader corridors. The desk was covered with administrative trays barely containing scattered piles of papers and boxes, and the computer.

The computer was a really old-fashioned-looking, cream- coloured boxy one on the desk by the papers. The kind that Mrs Elm would once have had in her school library. She was at the keyboard now, typing with urgency, staring at the monitor as Nora stood behind her.

The lights above – the same bare light bulbs hanging down from wires – were flickering wildly.

‘My dad was alive because of me. But he’d also had an affair, and my mum died earlier, and I got on with my brother because I had never let him down, but he was still the same brother, really, and he was only really okay with me in that life because I was helping him make money and . . . and . . . it wasn’t the Olympic dream I imagined. It was the same me. And something had happened in Portugal. I’d probably tried to kill myself or something. . . Are there any other lives at all or is it just the furnishings that change?’

[ Return to the review of “The Midnight Library.” ]

But Mrs Elm wasn’t listening. Nora noticed something on the desk. An old plastic orange fountain pen. The exact same kind that Nora had once owned at school.

‘Hello? Mrs Elm, can you hear me?’

Something was wrong.

The librarian’s face was tight with worry. She read from the screen, to herself. ‘System error.’

‘Mrs Elm? Hello? Yoo-hoo! Can you see me?’ She tapped her shoulder. That seemed to do it.

Mrs Elm’s face broke out in massive relief as she turned away from the computer. ‘Oh Nora, you got here?’

‘Were you expecting me not to? Did you think that life would be the one I wanted to live?’

She shook her head without really moving it. If that was possible. ‘No. It’s not that. It’s just that it looked fragile.’

‘What looked fragile?’ ‘The transfer.’ ‘Transfer?’

‘From the book to here. The life you chose to here. It seems there is a problem. A problem with the whole system. Something beyond my immediate control. Something external.

‘You mean, in my actual life?’

She stared back at the screen. ‘Yes. You see, the Midnight Library only exists because you do. In your root life.’

‘So, I’m dying?’

Mrs Elm looked exasperated. ‘It’s a possibility. That is to say, it’s a possibility that we are reaching the end of possibility.’

Nora thought of how good it had felt, swimming in the pool. How vital and alive. And then something happened inside her. A strange feeling. A pull in her stomach. A physical shift. A change in her. The idea of death suddenly troubled her. At that same time the lights stopped flickering overhead and shone brightly.

Mrs Elm clapped her hands as she absorbed new information on the computer screen.

‘Oh, it’s back. That’s good. The glitch is gone. We are running again. Thanks, I believe, to you.

‘What?’

‘Well, the computer says the root cause within the host has been temporarily fixed. And you are the root cause. You are the host.’ She smiled. Nora blinked, and when she opened her eyes both she and Mrs Elm were standing in a different part of the library. Between stacks of bookshelves again. Standing, stiffly, awkwardly, facing each other.

‘Right. Now, settle,’ said Mrs Elm, before releasing a deep and meaningful exhale. She was clearly talking to herself.

‘My mum died on different dates in different lives. I’d like a life where she is still here. Does that life exist?’

Mrs Elm’s attention switched to Nora. ‘Maybe it does.’

‘Great.’

‘But you can’t get there.’ ‘Why not?’

‘Because this library is about your decisions. There was no choice you could have made that led to her being alive beyond yesterday. I’m sorry.’

A light bulb flickered above Nora’s head. But the rest of the library stayed as it was.

‘You need to think about something else, Nora. What was good about the last life?’

Nora nodded. ‘Swimming. I liked swimming. But I don’t think I was happy in that life. I don’t know if I am truly happy in any life.’

‘Is happiness the aim?’

‘I don’t know. I suppose I want my life to mean something. I want to do something good.’

‘You once wanted to be a glaciologist,’ Mrs Elm appeared to remember.

‘Yeah.’

‘You used to talk about it. You said you were interested in the Arctic, so I suggested you become a glaciologist.’

‘I remember. I liked the sound of it straight away. My mum and dad never liked the idea, though.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t really know. They encouraged swimming. Well, Dad did. But anything that involved academic work, they were funny about.’ Nora felt a deep sadness, down in her stomach. From her arrival into life, she was considered by her parents in a different way to her brother.

‘Other than swimming, Joe was the one expected to pursue things,’ she told Mrs Elm. ‘My mum put me off anything that could take me away. Unlike Dad, she didn’t even push me to swim. But surely there must be a life where I didn’t listen to my mum and where I am now an Arctic researcher. Far away from everything. With a purpose. Helping the planet. Researching the impact of climate change. On the front line.’

‘So, you want me to find that life for you?’

Nora sighed. She still had no idea what she wanted. But at least the Arctic Circle would be different.

‘All right. Yes.’

Svalbard

She woke in a small bed in a little cabin on a boat. She knew it was a boat because it was rocking, and indeed the rocking, gentle as it was, had woken her up. The cabin was spare and basic. She was wearing a thick fleece sweater and long johns. Pulling back the blanket, she noticed that she had a headache. Her mouth was so dry her cheeks felt sucked-in against her teeth. She coughed a deep, chesty cough and felt a million pool-lengths away from the body of an Olympian. Her fingers smelt of tobacco. She sat up to see a pale-blonde, robust, hard-weathered woman sitting on another bed staring at her.

‘God morgen, Nora.’

She smiled. And hoped that in this life she wasn’t fluent in whichever Scandinavian language this woman spoke.

‘Good morning.’

She noticed a half-empty bottle of vodka and a mug on the floor beside the woman’s bed. A dog calendar (April: Springer Spaniel) was propped up on the chest between the beds. The three books on top of it were all in English. The one nearest to the woman said Principles of Glacier Mechanics. Two on Nora’s: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic and a Penguin Classic edition of The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. She noticed something else. It was cold. Properly cold. The cold that almost burns, that hurts your fingers and toes and stiffens your cheeks. Even inside. With layers of thermal underwear. With a sweater on. With the bars of two electric heaters glowing orange. Every exhale made a cloud.

‘Why are you here, Nora?’ the woman asked, in heavily accented English.

A tricky question, when you didn’t know where ‘here’ was. ‘Bit early in the morning, isn’t it, for philosophy?’ Nora laughed, nervously.

She saw a wall of ice outside the porthole, rising out of the sea. She was either very far north or very far south. She was very far somewhere.

The woman was still staring at her. Nora had no idea if they were friends or not. The woman seemed tough, direct, earthy, but probably an interesting form of company.

[ Return to the review of “The Midnight Library.” ]

‘I don’t mean philosophy. I don’t even mean what got you into glaciological research. Although, it might be the same thing. I mean, why did you choose to go as far away from civilisation as possible? You’ve never told me.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I like the cold.’

‘No one likes this cold. Unless they are a sado-masochist.’

She had a point. Nora reached for the sweater at the end of her bed and put it on, over the sweater she was already wearing. As she did she saw, beside the vodka bottle, a laminated lanyard lying on the floor.

Ingrid Skirbekk

Professor of Geoscience

International Polar Research Institute

‘I don’t know, Ingrid. I just like glaciers, I suppose. I want to understand them. Why they are . . . melting.’

She wasn’t sounding like a glacier expert, judging from Ingrid’s raised eyebrows.

‘What about you?’ she asked, hopefully.

Ingrid sighed. Rubbed her palm with a thumb. ‘After Per died, I couldn’t stand to be in Oslo any more. All those people that weren’t him, you know? There was this coffee shop we used to go to, at the university. We’d just sit together, together but silent. Happy silent. Reading newspapers, drinking coffee. It was hard to avoid places like that. We used to walk around everywhere. His troublesome soul lingered on every street . . . I kept telling his memory to piss the fuck off but it wouldn’t. Grief is a bastard. If I’d have stayed any longer, I’d have hated humanity. So, when a research position came up in Svalbard I was like, yes, this has come to save me . . . I wanted to be somewhere he had never been. I wanted somewhere where I didn’t have to feel his ghost. But the truth is, it only half-works, you know? Places are places and memories are memories and life is fucking life.’

Nora took all this in. Ingrid was clearly telling this to someone she thought she knew reasonably well, and yet Nora was a stranger. It felt odd. Wrong. This must be the hardest bit about being a spy, she thought. The emotion people store in you, like a bad investment. You feel like you are robbing people of something.

Ingrid smiled, breaking the thought. ‘Anyway, thanks for last night . . . That was a good chat. There are a lot of dickheads on this boat and you are not a dickhead.’

‘Oh. Thanks. Neither are you.’

And it was then that Nora noticed the gun, a large rifle with a hefty brown handle, leaning against the wall at the far end of the room, under the coat hooks.

The sight made her feel happy, somehow. Made her feel like her eleven-year-old self would have been proud. She was, it seemed, having an adventure.

Hugo Lefèvre

Nora walked with her headache and obvious hangover through an undecorated wooden passageway to a small dining hall that smelled of pickled herring, and where a few research scientists were having breakfast.

She got herself a black coffee and some stale, dry rye bread and sat down.

Around her, outside the window, was the most eerily beautiful sight she had ever seen. Islands of ice, like rocks rendered clean and pure white, were visible amid the fog. There were seventeen other people in the dining hall, Nora counted. Eleven men, six women. Nora sat by herself but within five minutes a man with short hair and stubble two days away from a full beard sat down at her table. He was wearing a parka, like most of the room, but he seemed ill-suited to it, as if he would be more at home on the Riviera wearing designer shorts and a pink polo shirt. He smiled at Nora. She tried to translate the smile, to understand the kind of relationship they had. He watched her for a little while, then shuffled his chair along to sit opposite her. She looked for a lanyard, but he wasn’t wearing one. She wondered if she should know his name.

‘I’m Hugo,’ he said, to her relief. ‘Hugo Lefèvre. You are Nora, yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘I saw you around, in Svalbard, at the research centre, but we never said hello. Anyway, I just wanted to say I read your paper on pulsating glaciers and it blew my mind.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. I mean, it’s always fascinated me, why they do that here and nowhere else. It’s such a strange phenomenon.’

‘Life is full of strange phenomena.’

Conversation was tempting, but dangerous. Nora smiled a small, polite smile and then looked out of the window. The islands of ice turned into actual islands. Little snow-streaked pointed hills, like the tips of mountains, or flatter, craggy plates of land. And beyond them, the glacier Nora had seen from the cabin porthole. She could get a better measure of it now, although its top portion was concealed under a visor of cloud. Other parts of it were entirely free from fog. It was incredible.

You see a picture of a glacier on TV or in a magazine and you see a smooth lump of white. But this was as textured as a mountain. Black-brown and white. And there were infinite varieties of that white, a whole visual smorgasbord of variation – white-white, blue-white, turquoise-white, gold-white, silver-white, translucent-white –rendered glaringly alive and impressive. Certainly more impressive than the breakfast.

‘Depressing, isn’t it?’ Hugo said. ‘What?’

‘The fact that the day never ends.’

Nora felt uneasy with this observation. ‘In what sense?’ He waited a second before responding.

‘The never-ending light,’ he said, before taking a bite of a dry cracker. ‘From April on. It’s like living one interminable day . . . I hate that feeling.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘You’d think they’d give the portholes curtains. Hardly slept since I’ve been on this boat.’

Nora nodded. ‘How long is that again?’

He laughed. It was a nice laugh. Close-mouthed. Civilised.

Hardly a laugh at all.

‘I drank a lot with Ingrid last night. Vodka has stolen my memory.’ ‘Are you sure it’s the vodka?’

‘What else would it be?’

His eyes were inquisitive, and made Nora feel automatically guilty.

She looked over at Ingrid, who was drinking her coffee and typing on her laptop. She wished she had sat with her now.

‘Well, that was our third night,’ Hugo said. ‘We have been meandering around the archipelago since Sunday. Yeah, Sunday. That’s when we left Longyearbyen.’

Nora made a face as if to say she knew all this. ‘Sunday seems for ever away.’

The boat felt like it was turning. Nora was forced to lean a little in her seat.

‘Twenty years ago there was hardly any open water in Svalbard in April. Look at it now. It’s like cruising the Mediterranean.’

Nora tried to make her smile seem relaxed. ‘Not quite.’ ‘Anyway, I heard you got the short straw today?’

Nora tried to look blank, which wasn’t hard. ‘Really?’ ‘You’re the spotter, aren’t you?’

She had no idea what he was talking about, but feared the twinkle in his eye.

‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Yes, I am. I am the spotter.’

Hugo’s eyes widened with shock. Or mock-shock. It was hard to tell the difference with him.

‘The spotter?’

‘Yes?’

Nora desperately wanted to know what the spotter actually did, but couldn’t ask.

‘Well, bonne chance,’ said Hugo, with a testing gaze.

‘Merci,’ said Nora, staring out at the crisp Arctic light and a landscape she had only ever seen in magazines. ‘I’m ready for a challenge.’

[ Return to the review of “The Midnight Library.” ]

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