When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it. Sure, the writing was exquisite, the metaphors and similes original and evocative and the style was lovely and easy to read… but… then, whoompa! Something occurred about a third or even halfway through and I was hooked. In fact, I not only didn’t want to put the book down, but I never wanted to leave this marvellous world/s of possibilities Alix E. Harrow has created.
This is the story of young, mostly abandoned (by her peripatetic father who worked collecting unusual antiquities for his patron, Mr Locke, who is also his daughter’s guardian) January Scaller – a girl who is not yet a woman, not quite white, but neither is she black. She is, however, coloured, and therefore perceived by the predominately white society she mixes in, as different. She is also curious, protected and, considering her differences, quite privileged. For this is a world very aware of place and position and that includes colour of one’s skin which, in January’s world, can only be overcome by connections – of which January is, to her great fortune, possessed.
Aware that she leads a sheltered life, January likens her existence to that of the many wonderful artefacts Mr Locke collects – the very same ones her father is tasked with finding for him. They’re kept in rooms, cages, glass display cases and judged; a value is assigned which governs how they’re appreciated. But January longs for more – she especially longs for her father to return from those interminable voyages he’s always taking and from which the best he can do is scrawl a few lines to her to indicate she is not forgotten. Only, try telling that to January.
Then, one day, she discovers a strange book. Believing it’s one of the many peculiar presents her guardian often leaves for her to discover, she finds the story within the pages transportative. It’s wondrous, compelling in its narrative about secret doors that when opened lead to other fantastical and sometimes dangerous worlds, and it offers her the escape she longs for. Yet, the more January reads, the more perplexed she becomes: is the book a fiction, or is it real? And why is it that the further she delves into its pages, the more complex and dangerous her own life becomes – until the moment she understands just what this book is and why it came to her…
It’s hard to talk too much about this novel without risking spoiling it except to say that it’s incredibly beautiful. I’ve already spoken about the writing, but the story (which is about the stories we tell – each other, within and across cultures – and the ability they have to shape and influence us; how they reside in our hearts and head, captivate, restore, embolden, challenge, move etc) is simply sensational. It’s a slow burn in some ways, but in other ways, the pace is perfect, but it took me a little while to appreciate that.
Part magic realism, wholly magical, this is a story about identity, family, love, and the other bonds that make and break us. It’s also about trust, faith, and the astonishing power of stories to shape the worlds we live in and how, in turn, we shape them as well. How opening doors, both metaphorically and literally, is an optimistic and progressive action that allows us to grow, change and most importantly, learn to understand ourselves with and through others. Powerfully and skilfully told, in a mesmerising and dream-like way, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.