Book review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Allix Harrow


As one can guess from its title, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a story about doors. Doors with a capital “D”—portals to other worlds. And although it’s a fantasy novel about physical doors that literally link worlds, it’s also about how books and stories are also portals to other worlds and other lives. It’s a gorgeous, lyrical story about magic, and it’s also a story about family—about the ways they love us, and how they can hurt us and disappoint us while still loving us. It’s a story with two soaring, romantic plot lines that will have you believing in True Love. Above all, it’s a tender and heart-felt tale of a young woman slowly realizing the truth of lies she’s been told all her life, and learning to recognize and claim her own strength.

The book starts in the summer of 1901, when seven year-old January Scaller finds a mysterious blue door in an overgrown Kentucky field. She goes through it, and discovers another world. But when she comes back, she finds that her guardian, Mr. Locke, does not approve of such “fanciful nonsense” and it’s years before she can believe in such Doors again.

The first chapters of the novel deal with January’s lonely upbringing in Locke House. Her father, Julian, spends most of his time away, traveling the world in search of rare artifacts for the wealthy Mr. Locke, who is a collector. January grows up in Locke’s mansion, under his care; he can be distantly kind, but his aim is to make her a proper lady of society, to dress her in fine clothes and stamp out “willful” behavior. Locke’s aim of having her move with him through high society is complicated by January’s appearance; in turn-of-the-century America, January is mixed-race with brown skin, and even Locke’s great wealth cannot protect her from society’s racism. Although January finds friendship with a grocer’s boy and a pet dog and, later, the governess which her father sends to her, she still feels like a lonely misfit.  

Mysteries abound in this early section: where and who was January’s mother? Where is her father from? (He’s not from America; he has a foreign accent, “red-black” skin, and mysterious tattoos on his arms, but nothing is said of his homeland). Exactly what is Mr. Locke’s New England Archaeological Society up to? Yet these mysteries are mainly of concern for the reader; January herself is preoccupied with being the “good girl” that Mr. Locke wants. Until, on the same day that she receives the worst news of her life, she discovers a mysterious book, The Ten Thousand Doors. Books are also doors, and January steps through this one into a tale of adventure. And it’s through this book-door that January comes again to Doors, and to her own adventure, one that encompasses both the fates of worlds and also the mystery of her own origins.

One of the most striking things about The Ten Thousand Doors of January is its ambitious structure: it takes the form of a book within a book, nested stories within stories. January is writing us her story, and within this she gives us the story of the eponymous Ten Thousand Doors, which starts off as a scholarly monograph but then becomes a memoir and then becomes something else yet again—just as January’s own written account is revealed as something unexpected at the end. The ways in which these narratives interact and twist together is a delight. Mysteries are revealed in a most satisfying fashion, and by the end the narrative has circled back to the beginning, shedding light on what was subtly puzzling.

There are chills, and fast-paced action as the plot kicks into gear after a slow, quiet beginning. There’s heartache, and gorgeous love stories, and beauty. Perhaps it’s the beauty that lingers; writer Alix Harrow’s prose is rich and lovely throughout, and even as the narrative stretches across years and worlds it remains deeply intimate. Certain quiet scenes linger: January and the grocer’s boy, Samuel, slipping away from a fancy party to share confidences in the dark; a boy meeting a girl in a field of fireflies. The description of a sun-bleached city by the sea: buildings of whitewashed stone and the smell of salt. January is a deeply affecting character, with endearing companions, and the characters of the book's parallel narrative are also deeply affecting. I confess that near the end I was inwardly shouting at some of January’s decisions, which seemed both foolhardy and too neatly aligned with certain plot turns, and yet. . . the ending of this book. The gorgeous, gorgeous, hopeful end. This book looks at darkness—it addresses both the intimate hurts in January’s family and in her attempts to fit herself into Mr. Locke’s model of a “good,” quiet girl, as well as the larger ills of imperialism, colonialism, and racism at the turn of the century—yet it is joy and magic and love that dominate at the end. I think the last two chapters are among the most perfect I have read, and the last lines made me want to return right to the beginning to read the story again with new eyes. Indeed, it’s a revelation to re-read that first chapter after learning the truth about Locke, January, and, well, everything. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a puzzle-box of mysteries and wonder, lovingly revealed; it’s a tribute to stories and words, an affirmation of love, and the coming-of-age tale of a young woman who escapes a story that someone else tried to force her into, and who learns to write her own.  

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