'The Ten Thousand Doors Of January' Review: Alix E. Harrow's Mysterious Debut Alix E. Harrow's debut novel, about a young woman growing up in a mysterious mansion at the turn of the last century, will lead you on a journey through books within books and worlds within worlds.
NPR logo You'll Want To Open Every One Of 'The Ten Thousand Doors Of January'

Review

Book Reviews

You'll Want To Open Every One Of 'The Ten Thousand Doors Of January'

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow's debut novel, is one for the favorites shelf. It will lead you on a journey through books within books, worlds within worlds, mysteries within mysteries, until, finally, you reach a deep breath taken after a perfectly satisfying last page. Your breath. The last page of the book in your hand. The kind of last page that bewitches your fingers and, yes, you are turning again to the first page before you've decided whether you'll reread the whole book now or just turn to a favorite part. There will be favorite parts.

Even knowing how it ends, reading again is fresh delight.

Set (at first) in New England at the turn of the last century, this is the story of January Scaller, who's growing up in a large house full of curious artifacts, rich in privilege but starved of belonging. The house is owned by Mr. Locke, a member of the exclusive New England Archaeological Society, who employs her father to acquire objects of interest around the world. Julian Scaller finds, extracts, tags, boxes, and ships pieces back to Mr. Locke, who labels them and puts them safely in order. Julian has dark skin; when January asks Mr. Locke whether she's colored, he tells her she is a "perfectly unique specimen."

Of course, January's isolated life is not completely without fellowship: She has Samuel Zappia, the grocer's boy who sneaks her adventure stories, Jane, the regal mystery woman sent by Julian to be her governess, and Bad, short for Sindbad, most loyal of hounds, a Very Good Boy. Magic is real, though hidden at first. A Door in a field opens into another world. Trinkets and books appear in a chest without explanation. Words written become, or seem to become, true. Stories are power. Doors are secret, but findable. A book tells the story of a world where writing words is literally a power.

The New England Archaeological Society isn't quite what it seems. Most of the characters in The Ten Thousand Doors of January aren't.

January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, thresholds, doorways and endings. Of course she is. Harrow's writing is always as clever and deliberate as it is exquisite and revelatory. Is there a more beautifully effective way to bookmark history than to tell us what January is reading or what classic work of fiction was just published? My history-loving, bibliophiliac heart thrilled. As I read, I found myself pausing on paragraphs, poring over a single sentence, tracing the letters with my fingertips because of how exactly right an image was or how perfectly an experience was caught in words.

I felt like a child reader again. Do you remember reading and wondering over how the world felt clearer? How here was a way to think about the world you'd never thought before? I do. Do you remember being so invested in characters you thought about them constantly, never doubting they were real? I do.

If I were to level any criticism at The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it might be that occasionally a plot device is too neat. Then again, does a door fit too snugly in its frame if it closes properly? Even when plot fell into place as predicted, the story never shook me; I was always eager to know what came next, and a little afraid of reading too quickly, since logic dictated eventually I'd run out of pages. There is also a tendency for characters to love at first sight, which isn't bad — I love the loves in this novel! — but, again, it feels neat. Certain themes are repeated often. The repetition gives the storytelling an incantatory quality which I liked, but might not be for everybody.

There is a lot to think about. The way Harrow explores privilege and race, class and power, control, imperialism, the desire for order, the desire for hope, community, home, what it is to be an exile, what it is to be afraid. Stories provide strength and escape in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but Harrow doesn't neglect to show us how the stories we're told can trap us, too. For a novel so grand in scope, it manages to stay intimate. Its heart is in January's relationships with her family, Mr. Locke, and — so importantly, so beautifully — herself.

Here is a book to make you happy when you gently close it. Here you will find wonder and questions and an unceasingly gorgeous love of words which compasses even the shape a letter makes against a page.

I lingered, savoring. I confess to holding the physical galley to my nose, closing my eyes, because this novel demands a full sensuous experience. It glories over the act of reading and writing and responding to words. It revels over letters and curiosity and the power of books. It gives you memorable characters. It gives you worlds and invites you to escape; it invites you home.

This is a love story. I fell in love.

Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.