Posted in Throwback Thursday

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow.

January is a young girl with a great imagination. She lives with her guardian Mr Locke and her nurse/governess Mrs Wilde, while her father travels the world. Her father is an adventurer, travelling far and wide to find treasures for Mr. Locke’s collection. She misses him and sits in her room wrapped in the pink and gold bedspread he sent her from India. January is just becoming a teenager and starts to learn that her freedom and imagination are a threat. One day she writes about a door to another world and soon after she discovers the very door she has written. Stepping through, she sees a different land with a white shimmering city in the distance. She now sees she can have her own adventures without ever leaving the hall and the protection of Mr Locke. But her creativity is not seemly for young ladies and Mr Locke determines she is overstimulated and needs the rest cure. This involves lying in a plain room with nothing to occupy her mind. At first she runs wild and tears the curtains and bedspread in defiance, but then realises this simply plays into Mr Locke’s hands. Instead she chooses to comply on the surface and become the nice young lady he wants. Yet, all the time a sense of adventures grows within and we realise January is not going to be a nice young lady for long.

Harrow intersperses January’s story with a different narrative from a book that comes from her father. The story tells of a young girl named Adelaide or Ade to her family and the age old tale of a haunted house that all the local children stay away from because of the ‘boo hags’. Ade is more curious than she is scared, but in the cornfield outside meets a type of boy she has never seen before, called Yule Ian.We don’t know where these people fit into January’s story but their story hints at worlds as yet unseen and legends from every country in the world. It’s as if January’s restrictions of Victorian womanhood is the smallest Russian doll in a set, she is enclosed by bigger worlds than her own. Her existence is restricted by our modern standards, but what if our own existence is similarly restricted? I started to think of other worlds beyond this one where the rules of existence are totally different or without limit.

I truly loved this wonderful book. It took a few chapters for everything to click into place, but I was intrigued enough to keep going till the story made sense. January is a great central character and her need to break free from the constraints placed upon her by Mr Locke would be understood by every teenage girl. I think this is partly the novels success – Harrow has taken a familiar feeling from any teenage girl, but placed it within a magical world where there are no limits to existence. When January realises she can write doors into other worlds and follow them, more freedom than she ever imagined is hers for the taking. However, this freedom depends entirely on pleasing Mr. Locke and we learn later in the book that his guardianship of January is even more far reaching than even she thought. He has schooled and packaged January in a way that is acceptable to Victorian society. He has polished and locked her away like one of the many treasures in his collection.

The novel is full of characters who move beyond their bounds in one world, while finding themselves completely at home in another. Jane is sent as a companion for January, paid for by her traveller father who comes and goes plundering worlds for Mr Locke’s collections. Jane finds that in one world her fearlessness and hunting skills are integral to her culture and survival, but in January’s world she is expected to keep her eyes down and not challenge people who are her betters. In this world Jane is problematic because she is a woman with no breeding or class and because she is black. January’s friend Samuel has slightly more freedom than Jane because he is a man even though his class and skin colour are the same. Just as Locke categorises and catalogues his collections, it seems there is an unspoken taxonomy of people. January has side-stepped disapproval, despite being poor and mixed race, thanks to Locke’s fortune which keeps her in dresses, pearls and first- class travel. January is kept in a gilded cage, but it is still a cage.
I couldn’t see at first where Ade and Yule Ian fit into the narrative, but soon I realised how crucial they both are to January and the world she sees as she discovers her writing power. It takes huge courage to use that power, but increasingly January finds it is the only way she can protect herself and the freedoms she believes in. She wants to find her father or at least the last place connected to him and she will keep wrenching doors open until she finds the right one. A shadowy organisation is not far behind her though, run by The Founder. They want this world to stay on one course; a rigid world following a set pattern of Empire, industrial revolution and exploitation of other country’s resources. The magical worlds January visits are too unpredictable, because they signify endless change. What will The Founder do to keep the doors closed and how can January throw them wide open again in order to see her family?

For me this novel is so successful because even when we are in the most alien of worlds the author never forgets this is a human story. The family bonds and the aching loss of bereavement feel real and honest. These may be extraordinary characters but their emotions are very human and relatable. I found myself aching for January to be reconciled with her father and for his heartbreak to heal. The novel also has something important to say about love: it’s many forms from familial to friendship and romantic love; the compromises of successful relationships and the need to give the one we love freedom and space to grow. I was so sad to finish this story and almost resented the next book I picked up. It is inventive, extraordinary and touching in equal measure. It is my book of the year so far and I’m now ordering my hardback copy to keep.

Meet The Author

Alix E. Harrow has been a student and a teacher, a farm-worker and a cashier, an ice-cream-scooper and a 9-to-5 office-dweller. She’s lived in tents and cars, cramped city apartments and lonely cabins, and spent a summer in a really sweet ’79 VW Vanagon. She has library cards in at least five states.

Now she’s a full-time writer living in with her husband and two semi-feral kids in Kentucky. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons,, Apex, and other venues, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January is her debut novel. Find her wasting time and having opinions at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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