This is a book which deals in history, time-travel, murder, intrigue and missing persons. It is also a book about identity – the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from. Most of all, it is a book about the importance of work – and being given the chance to do something with your life.
AJ Flynn and his friends Slim and Leon are only 16 years old, but they have already been more or less written off as worthless and irredeemable. Raised by inadequate parents in broken families on a grim housing estate, they have inherited a modern London which has little use for them. They are the boys in “hoodies”; obscured, undifferentiated and up to trouble, no doubt. Their lives have barely begun, but their futures already seem hopeless. The novel begins with a sharp dig at a society which rates a person by their exam results: “You will never amount to anything, AJ Flynn. Not with one GCSE.”
The motif of magical doors is central to the plot. A door is the device by which AJ travels back into the past, back to London in the 1830s. Unsolved mysteries are there; missing people are trapped there. AJ alone has the power to keep the door opened or closed; and yes, you can read that as a metaphor. Doors are literal and symbolic both – and simultaneously. When AJ is given the opportunity of a job interview, his whole life – both past and future – hinges upon that door. “He wondered if by going through the door that led to Baldwin Groat’s chambers he had altered everything. He had gone in jobless, hopeless and nameless, and come out with a job, a glimmer of hope and a name he’d never heard before.” (p. 12-13)
A door is not the freshest symbolic device, but Sally Gardner makes good use of it. She is a writer with a rich imagination and talent for mashing up genres. London appears, as both vivid setting and varied character, in the majority of her novels – and this is doubly true of The Door That Led to Where. I,Coriander takes place on London Bridge as England sways precariously between the rule of Royalists and Puritans. In The Red Necklace, a young gypsy boy travels between London and Paris as a first-hand witness to the French Revolution. In all of these novels, history is liberally laced with magic – a fresh surprise for readers who think of history as a dry and dusty thing. From cataclysmic historical events come phoenix opportunities . . . perfect for a young character who has the imagination and courage to fashion his or her life into something new.
Gardner is a writer who consistently champions the underdog. Perhaps her best-known novel is Maggot Moon, which won the Carnegie Medal in 2013. This dystopian story is about a young boy, Standish Treadwell, who exposes a huge lie in the totalitarian state described as the “Motherland”. Readers with an awareness of history will catch parallels to the Nazi regime and Cold War schemes, but the setting of the book is original – and wholly in the fantasy realm. Standish has mismatched eyes and a dyslexic brain; the whole point is that he sees things differently from most other people, and this is both advantage and disadvantage in a society that demands compliance and conformity. Like the author, who has spoken openly about her struggles with dyslexia and mainstream education, Standish has been written off and marginalized. But people who are at the margins, unnoticed and ignored, also have a power – and this is a theme that Gardner returns to again and again.
Although AJ Flynn has largely "failed" in the exam system, he has self-educated himself through a love of reading. At first, the library was just a safe and quiet haven from his chaotic home life; later, he discovers the power of books. His knowledge of Dickens gets him noticed at his first job interview, when lack of confidence and the wrong clothes would have sunk him. Not everyone has a "Jobey's Door" to time-travel through, it's true, but books provide a door of sorts . . . the author definitely makes that point.
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