The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (2019)

There are times when you love a book, and rather than explain you just want to put copies into the hands of the right readers and insist that they stop whatever they might have been doing and read.

I say the right reader because this isn’t a book that will be universally adored, and it isn’t quite perfect, but I know that those right readers will love it dearly.

It isn’t the kind of book that I read often, but I picked it up at exactly the right moment, when I needed an escape from the turbulence of the world that I live in.

The story opens in America, early in the 20th century.

January Scaller has grown up in the mansion of her guardian, Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of rare and rare and beautiful objects. This had come about because her mother – a white woman – had been missing for so long that it could only be presumed she was dead; and her father – a black man – was employed to travel as far and as wide as he could in search of new treasures for Mr Locke’s collection.

JanuaryShe knows that she has had a privileged upbringing, that she has been lucky in many ways, but she can’t help feeling that she is just another piece in the collection, prized by her guardian and the members of his scientific society for her cedar-wood coloured skin and her usual and exotic heritage.

As she grows up things that will change January’s worlds begin to happen.

She makes friends with a boy named Samuel, a delivery boy who often comes to the mansion.

He gives her a dog who she names Sinbad, and he becomes her devoted friend and protector.

Her father sends her a formidable black woman named Jane Irimu, who he hopes will be her companion and her guide.

And then two quite extraordinary things happen.

She finds a door, out in the country where no door should be,  she finds that stepping through that door takes her into a different, and her head fills with questions about what that might mean, and about her own family history and situation.

Not long after that, she finds an old book. She had always loved books, and she knew straight away that the book she held in her hands was special.

This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noon times beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page …

The faded gold letters on the book’s spine read The Ten Thousand Doors,  its opening pages presented it as a monograph on  portals between worlds, but as January turned more pages she found that she herself reading a compelling story of the life and adventures of a young woman who had found doors just like the one she had found.

That was just the beginning of January’s own extraordinary adventure. I was enchanted by her voice from the very start, and it was lovely to follow her as she learned so much and discovered that though there were many who were eager to open doors and to learn and explore, there were others who wanted to exploit those things and to close and control doors.

Her story was written in lovely prose, that could be rich and evocative, that could move the story along at times of high drama, and that could build worlds wonderfully, wonderfully well. And that prose was threaded though with wonderful ideas, about words and books, about discovering the past and stepping into the future, about the big things and the small things that make a life.

Once we have agreed that true love exists, we may consider its nature. it is not, as many misguided poets would have you believe, an event in and of itself; it is not something that happens, but simply something that simply is and always has been. One does not fall in love; one discovers it …

January’s own story was every bit as special as the one in the book that she found,  and the the two stories worked together beautifully.

The plot became a little predictable as the book went on, and I think the setting up of the story was stronger that the playing out; but my care and concern for January and her friends and the themes and ideas that enriched the story were more than enough to hold me.

There is a timeless quality to this story, and it sits well in its era while speaking about things that are very significant today.

I appreciated that it acknowledged its influences.

Worlds were never meant to be prisons, locked suffocating and safe. Worlds were supposed to be great rambling houses with all the windows thrown open and the wind and summer rain rushing through them, with magic passages in their closets and secret treasure chests in their attics …

And I found that this book was wonderfully readable, that it gave me much to think about, that it pulled me right out of my world  ….

3 thoughts on “The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (2019)

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