90. ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig – on day 3 of quarantine

I had seen so many people reading this book that I bought it as a ‘plane’ read for my flight home to Australia – in fact as I write, I am on Day 3 of a 14 day quarantine at the Howards Springs facility in Darwin. I was fortunate enough to secure a seat on one of the Australian Government arranged repatriation flights after a couple of cancelled bookings, and words cannot express how glad I am to be on Aussie soil again, even though I shan’t see family until I’ve completed quarantine.

Thus far it’s certainly been strange. To begin with, Heathrow was a ghost town – never, ever have I seen it so empty. The roads in from the motorway, and the drop off point, were completely clear of traffic; check in was swift, and passing through security was even swifter; no snaking queues to reach the checkpoints. For me the most astonishing and pointed reminder that these are very different times were the departure boards – as you can see, the schedule for the entire day didn’t fill the three screens, whereas normally they are flashing though masses of flights with only two or three hours worth per screen…incredible.

Then there was the entirely novel experience of flying non stop all the way to Australia, on a much more northerly arc than the usual route – it took around sixteen hours to reach Darwin, with 197 repatriating Australians deeply uncomfortable about being seated RIGHT NEXT to each other after socially distancing in the UK for months – at least, I was, despite the fact that everyone on board, like me, had of necessity provided a negative Covid test result within the previous 48 hours. Possibly the oddest thing was reaching Darwin and being told in no uncertain terms to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres between family groups once we had disembarked… in groups of thirty, which meant yours truly, sitting right at the back of the plane, had to stay in the tiniest economy seat on the planet for another two and a half hours before being allowed down the steps and on to the tarmac, where a cordoned path led to the RAAF base. Not quite sure where they anticipated anyone making a desperate break for freedom to, with nothing but miles of broiling tarmac in sight, but there you go.

Through passport control quickly, and issued with a large yellow envelope with your name on it – ‘But don’t open it!’ – then into another area where one was instructed to empty said envelope into a container; the mysterious contents proved to be a Covid test kit and a lanyard with your room keycard and a few other bits inside. Oooh, goody, testing the ridiculous depths of the nostrils once more…and out to find suitcases, heavily armed police, and a bus ready to transport we thirty to the quarantine facility.

‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BOOK?’ I hear you cry – ‘enough of quarantine!’ Well. There’s a reason I have more to say about quarantine than this book. I know lots of people appear to have enjoyed it…but I’m afraid I found it to be a load of fluffy, fanciful tosh, with ‘meaningfulness’ and ‘life lessons’ scattered liberally throughout…trying to get somewhere, or pass on some earth shattering revelation, but in fact without achieving a great deal, and with a not particularly original base concept either. Those of you who read my review on ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’, may have already guessed this was not the book for me, and I should have known it myself from the cover blurb. But hey ho, I had a long flight, in the afore mentioned tiniest economy seat ever, and having dropped my ‘real’ book under the seat and been completely unable to retrieve it, this was all I had. So, I ploughed through it.

Nora’s life choices may not have been the best, and after her cat dies and she loses her job, she decides to end it all, first penning a poignant social media post. Of course. However, instead of dying, she finds herself in a not particularly inspiring magical library, with a librarian who was kind to her as a teenager, and gets the opportunity to try out some of the different lives she could have had, had she made different choices. The best bit was the cat’s name.

Please don’t get me wrong. I have enormous sympathy for those people who struggle with depression, anxiety, mental illness – I believe it is a peculiarly current issue, worse than usual of late due to the tremendous stresses and anxieties of the past twelve months, especially in the UK, and its resulting heavier than usual reliance on various forms of social media, which can as we all know be a dangerous place. Note this was published in 2020. But, I like a book to thrill me, inform me, educate me, in some way enthralled and fascinate me…and I found this to be completely tedious, shallow and self serving, with an implausible central character, a lack of plot, and leaving me with a strong sense that the author is ‘cashing in’ on the current mental health crises many are facing. I genuinely did not enjoy a thing about it, in case you hadn’t already guessed!

In other words, I’d be delighted to gift this forward once I’m ‘released’ – otherwise, I shall be leaving it behind! I’d love to know what others have thought of it, though.