Book review: The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. Published by Canongate on 13 August 2020.

“Oh, it is real, Nora Seed. But it is not quite reality as you understand it. For want of a better word, it is in-between. 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.”

Nora Seed has hit rock bottom. With her career and personal life in tatters and her cat dead, she sees little point in a carrying on with a life which seems to her to be now irreversibly set on the worse possible course. In recent years, it has become commonplace for people to say they are living “their best possible life.” Nora, it is clear, is not living hers.

Then, miraculously, Nora is presented with what seems like an incredible opportunity. Arriving at the mystical Midnight Library, she is given the chance to experience or at least sample some of the possible alternative lives she could have led, had she made different decisions along life’s journey. Could she have made it as a rock star had she kept it up? Could she have achieved Olympic success had things turned out differently? Could the cat have been saved? Nora is about to find out.

A fantasy which is nevertheless grounded in cold reality, Matt Haig has created an enchanting ultimately uplifting book, which will resonate with many readers while nevertheless remaining magical. As with his earlier novels, The Radleys (about a very unusual 21st century family), The Last Family in England (the secret life of dogs), The Humans (a Cambridge University professor is taken over by an alien) and How To Stop Time (a man lives for several hundred years), Matt Haig continues to establish himself as one of Britain’s finest novelists. Though it does not shy away from the mental health issues Haig confronted in his acclaimed non-fiction book, Notes On A Nervous Planet, The Mídnight Library is in some ways as life-affirming as the film, Groundhog Day. It is definitely worth reading.

TV review: Normal People

As the nation has grown accustomed to lockdown in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have naturally turned more frequently to their TVs for entertainment, with some series inevitably faring better than others during this highly unusual period.

One notable success story in the last two weeks has been the new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People. Although only half way through its 12 episode terrestrial TV run (episodes 5 and 6 will be screened tonight – that is, Monday May 11th 2020 on BBC One from 9pm), the series which is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, has been a huge success on the BBC iPlayer. It has, in fact, become the most requested ever show on the BBC streaming service, beating a record set by the first series of action-packed international drama, Killing Eve in 2018.

NORMAL PEOPLE

Normal People is essentially the tale of the on-off love story over a number of years between a young couple, Marianne Sheldon and Connell Waldron, who begin a relationship initially while as teenagers nearing the end of their schooldays in County Sligo in the Irish Republic. Both are very bright and have much in common, although these things are not necessarily immediately obvious to those around them. At school, Connell (Paul Mescal) is sporty, amiable and popular. In the US, he would be described as a ‘jock’ and keeps his more sensitive literary side fairly well-hidden. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), in contrast, is clever and sensitive too but at school is spiky, rebellious and more socially intimidating. Although, she too, is attractive, she is so unpopular, the other pupils rarely acknowledge this, perhaps not even to themselves. Her relationship with Connell is conducted in the utmost secrecy, during their time at school.

Although he has a happier home life, the Waldrons are much less well-off than the Sheldons, Connell’s mother in fact working as a cleaner in Marianne’s mother’s house. We soon learn Marianne’s domestic existence is deeply unhappy, however. The household is unloving, cold, sterile and ultimately abusive. As the couple’s relationship progresses to Trinity College, Dublin, the two see their roles effectively reversed with Marianne becoming much confident and at ease than the now more awkward Connell, having reinvented herself in her new largely middle-class environment.

Doubtless some of the series’ popularity stems from the potentially voyeuristic appeal of the show’s frequent sex scenes, though these are never pornographic or salacious in tone. Beautifully acted, particularly by its two leads who are surely now both destined for stardom, sensitive and intelligent in its portrayal of an evolving relationship, Normal People is a drama which deserves its success.

There is talk now of producing a TV version of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, or perhaps a TV sequel to Normal People (no literary sequel to the book yet exists).

But, in truth, Normal People is that rarest of things: a TV series which is actually better than the novel which inspired it.

The Wasp Factory: 30 years on

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This week sees the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Iain Bans’ controversial debut novel The Wasp Factory. It is a sad anniversary, in that for the first time Banks himself who died of cancer last year, will no longer be around to celebrate it.

In truth such was the tabloid furore surrounding the book in 1984 that Banks, then in his twenties, did well to ever escape the book’s long shadow. It remains perhaps his darkest book and one that I (perhaps wrongly) hesitate to recommend to readers who have never sampled Banks’ work before, even though it was the first one I actually ever read myself. That said, it is still quite mild next to some books which have appeared since (such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho). It is also still, alongside The Crow Road, one of Banks’ best and most famous works.

Banks was undeniably right to describe the book as a “dark comedy” though even though parts of the book (such as the reasons for his older brother’s breakdown) are deeply unpleasant. The main character Frank is undeniably deeply disturbed enjoying an isolated life with his retired ex-hippy dad, playing in a world of fantasy or fighting a giant bunny (a scene which actually appears to be based in the real world when activities around a rabbit warren get out of hand). But the wasp factory of the title isn’t a metaphor: it is a physical structure which Frank has built himself. And he is a killer. Grim though they are, Frank’s accounts of his murders are among the most memorable bits in the novel.

Throughout the book there are also subtle indications that something more is wrong with Frank. Unlike most teenage boys, he seems oddly repelled by women.

Thirty years on, The Wasp Factory remains hugely compelling from its odd unworldly opening to its very final line.

Book review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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The Seventies were a very long time ago. It was a time of Cold War, industrial unrest, power cuts, states of emergency and economic decline. The Right were alarmed at the possibility of a coup from the Marxist Left, perhaps led by Anthony Wedgewood Benn. The Left were, in turn (perhaps with more reason) worried about the prospect of a military takeover by the Right, perhaps with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed as its symbolic head.

None of this should be news. The Seventies have been well covered in recent years, in non-fiction (such as Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent State of Emergency) and in fiction (Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is just one example).

The era, specifically the Heath years (1970-74), do, however, provide an excellent backdrop for Ian McEwan’s latest spy novel Sweet Tooth.

Perhaps “spy novel” is a misleading term (although it definitely is one) as this has a more literary flavour than most books in the genre. The young pretty heroine Serena Frome (perhaps Hayley Atwell could play her if there’s ever a TV or film version?) is groomed for MI5 after leaving Cambridge once an affair with one of her lecturers turns sour. But Serena’s suitability for espionage is as based as much on her reading habits as any other talents she might have. For Serena is soon used as a tool to bring an emerging star of the literary world “on side” and like George Orwell before, become ensconced in the MI5 Cold War camp.

Ian McEwan is a rarity in British fiction in that he manages to attract both popular appeal and literary acclaim. Here, he does so again, exploring a world of intrigue as well as a vanished literary scene (Anthony Powell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis) in reality poised to give way to a new generation of writing talent, namely Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Ian McEwan himself.