There’s something of a recent trend for writers to take back mythological, and sometimes historical women figures to rewrite them as strong women who survive and even thrive in a man’s world.
Madeline Miller’s Circe is one of my favourites. Her protagonist is no longer the wicked witch who seduces the hero Odysseus, but a woman who faces down Odysseus and survives. The outcome is the same in ancient story and Miller’s tale, but through a modern woman writer’s eyes, Circe asserts and diverts rather than weeps and creeps. Given which gender penned the great myths, the bias is hardly surprising.
If a myth is a symbolic narrative that explains how the world works, Matt Haig’s recent novel, The Midnight Library fits the bill without falling into the ancient trap of male as hero and woman as demon or dipstick. Here a male author presents the fable of a young, modern woman who hangs between life and death, trying to identify the ‘why’ of things in order to decide whether to remain in this life, or go on to the next adventure. Rather than a rugged island, we meet his protagonist Nora just before midnight in a library. And rather than a ferocious multi-headed beast, she is challenged by her old school librarian. Mrs Elm, to decide which path to take. Elm is guide to Nora throughout the book as Virgil is to Dante.
Much as it sounds rather desperate, Haig writes with a deft, light touch that often uses humour to make it possible to relate to the frailty of his characters without needing to reach for our own pills or scotch. As Nora tries on several versions of her life for size, Haig makes a space for us to wonder what might have happened had we taken a different path.
If to have a philosophy is to have a view of man, Haig tries on several for size as Nora explores anger, rejection, self-esteem, grief and loss, fame and fortune. The story is populated with little pearls and diamonds at every turn, including how to think about the flawed people we love.
The final chapter is titled How it Ends. Finding the real Mrs. Elm in an aged care facility, she and Nora embark upon a game of chess. The movement of the pieces, most satisfactorily, takes us to the resolution of the novel while leaving the library door open for the reader to decide how to make their next move. If I had to choose one word to sum up how I felt as I closed the back cover, I’d say ‘uplifted’.