“The Door That Led to Where” by Sally Gardner

The Door That Led to Where The Door That Led to Where | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9781471401084 | Hot Key Books, 2015 | 2 out of 5 Points

AJ Flynn has just failed all but one of his GCSEs, and his future is looking far from rosy. So when he is offered a junior position at a London law firm he hopes his life is about to change – but he could never have imagined by how much.

Tidying up the archive one day, AJ finds an old key, mysteriously labelled with his name and date of birth – and he becomes determined to find the door that fits the key. And so begins an amazing journey to a very real and tangible past – 1830, to be precise – where the streets of modern Clerkenwell are replaced with cobbles and carts, and the law can be twisted to suit a villain’s means. Although life in 1830 is cheap, AJ and his friends quickly find that their own lives have much more value. They’ve gone from sad youth statistics to young men with purpose – and at the heart of everything lies a crime that only they can solve. But with enemies all around, can they unravel the mysteries of the past, before it unravels them?

LUDOVICA’S REVIEW

„The Door That Led to Where“ is an excellent contemporary YA book, but a not so excellent historical novel. This is the first book by Sally Gardner that I read, though I’ve heard (from Ella) that she is pretty well-known as an author of children’s and young adult books, and I can very well believe that; her characters are authentic and realistic, the voice of her main character, AJ, is enjoyable, and the plot of this book is tight and tense, even though it’s not quite as sprawling as a book with this kind of plot could have been. But I guess that’s a problem of the genre more than a problem of this particular book.

THE ELECTRONIC JUNGLE

I really enjoyed the parts of the book that took place in the present. Gardner describes the hopelessness, but also the humanity of Stoke Newington, a well-known working-class part of London, so emphatically that you can’t help but feel for all the inhabitants of this fictional version of Stokey. AJ’s hopeless life in particular left me with a pretty bad heart-ache; I mean, a boy who not only never knew his father, but who grew up with a mum who always blamed him for everything and apparently never even hugged him until he was 17??? That shit is awful, but it makes for great rooting interests. I wanted AJ to succeed, to have a lovely life of his own and to show his mother and bratty little sister that he was worth something after all, that he was not just a waste of space or a moocher living off what little money his mother has.

The mystery in the present was also very engaging, especially because the stakes were pretty high thanks to AJ’s background. Should he go investigating that strange key and file with his name on it, or should he leave it be, because it’s not his property, but that of the people he works for? Why did he even get a job in legal chambers, with no experience whatsoever, and with only one GCSE? Who are the counsellors working there, and why do they seem to know his father? Who is his father, anyway? All of these questions kept me reading, and most of the answers to these questions drew me even deeper into this book.

But then the time travel happened, and with the time travel, the eye rolling started.

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG

This book suffers from two different sets of errors. The first set of errors is especially annoying, because it is so easily preventable that most other books manage to avoid it. The thing is, the editing of this book is so goddamn bad. Not only are words missing or repeated (on one page, there were three editing mistakes like that), but at the very beginning, when the time travel first happens, the book gives the year they have travelled to as 1930. So imagine my confusion when AJ later says he is in the year 1830. Does the door lead to different time periods? Why are all the same people as in 1930 in 1830 as well? Is this a rebirth type situation?

The answer, of course, was that ‘1930’ had been an editing mistake in the first place. It was meant to mean 1830, and let’s be honest, such a plot-relevant mistake because of nothing but poor editing is just not acceptable. I can overlook the one or other missed ‘to’ or ‘going’, but I can’t overlook a mistake that literally throws me off the plot and makes it impossible for me to understand what’s going on until I figure out that there was a mistake in the book itself. And it’s not like this is a self-published book or anything. It’s not a debut novel either. This is just unacceptable. Though it has to be said that this is not Gardner’s fault, but her publisher’s.

The second set of errors will not surprise anybody who has read any of my reviews on historical novels: The historic alpart of this book was just not right. There are some things I can forgive, and some things that other authors usually get wrong which Gardner got right – for example, half-black Leon and Turkish Slim have no problems whatsoever in 1830 London, which is honestly as it should be. However, it is surprising coming from an author who apparently nailed the Tudor era in ‘I, Coriander’, one of Ella’s favorites, that Gardner gets the role of women in 1830 England so. wrong.

At one point in the book, AJ reads a set of etiquette books, one for men and one for women. I’m going to quote here, and I’m pretty sure you’ll quickly notice why I got pissed off when I read it.

The second book was on social rules for ladies. It was shocking. As far as he could make out, ladies weren’t allowed to read books or go to the theatre. Even Shakespeare was thought to be too much for their frail constitutions to bear. When he reached the part about how a lady must always be corseted he wondered why there hadn’t been a mass rebellion.

Just… Everything about this is wrong. Everything. First of all, can we stop harping on those poor corsets??? They just did the same job as bras do today. They were not unpleasant. They did not restrict breathing. MEN wore corsets as well, especially in the 1830s. Nobody ever talks about the fact that a lot of men liked a smooth silhouette as much as women did, but whenever we talk about corsets, they are these torture instruments of patriarchal doom. Just… Bullshit. Stop that. It’s just so extra stupid in this context, because the middle-aged generation in 1830 would have been in their youth during the Regency period, when – gasp – corsets were not in fashion! Why would they force their daughters to wear corsets if their own wives did not do so? And 1830 corsets weren’t even really used to reduce your waist! 1830 is not interchangeable with 1850, and even then nobody forced people to wear a corset. It was just good tone, in most circumstances, like wearing a bra is today.

And then we come to the books. The way reading is portrayed in Jane Austen novels, which take place a mere decade before this book’s past-part, is a good indication for how reading women were viewed at that time: There were books that were considered appropriate for women to read (the bible, treatises on virtues, educational novels, generally books that jived with the moral understanding of the time), and books that were not considered appropriate (books with immoral subjects, basically). Women were not forbidden to read books. You’re thinking of the puritans, not 1830 London.

Same with theatre. Theatre just was not forbidden for women. It was not. It was a major source of entertainment for the upper and middle classes. Same as books. Why would a wealthy young lady stoop to sewing when she could instead read French books and become sophisticated and an interesting conversationalist?

Also, the whole ‘frail constitution’ thing? Also not a thing in the 1830s. That’s a Victorian thing. 1830 is not Victorian. I repeat, 1830 is NOT interchangeable with 1850. I expect more from an author writing a time travel novel, really. Sally Gardner is teaching young people things about history that just are not true. She is perpetuating the insulting falsehood that women in the past had awful lives and were treated horribly by men and were not allowed to have any fun. We have enough of that in YA already, really.

WHEN RECKLESS YOUNG ADULT FICTION BECOMES DANGEROUS

Now we come to my last point, and the reason why I don’t feel comfortable giving this book more than 2 points. You remember AJs mum? The woman who never hugged him until he was 17, who either ignored him entirely or told him he was a useless piece of shit and that she regretted having him? Who told him her boyfriend would beat him up if he didn’t do what she said?

That woman got a redemption.

Yep, you heard that right. Once the secret about AJ’s dad is revealed, she suddenly starts to be nice to her child. Her child who she mentally and emotionally abused and (as is implied) beat for 17 years. Suddenly she started being nice to him, hugging him, being worried about him. And the book condones her behaviour. We are basically asked to just forget the fact that this woman is an abuser who tortured a child for nearly two decades. Suddenly, AJ gets along with her again. She gets rid of her boyfriend (who was definitely not the reason for her behaviour, since he apparently was only with her for a few years), and suddenly she wants AJ to forgive her and to have a new start. And AJ does – which, to be fair, is realistic, since he would likely have been hungering for his mother’s approval all his life, and he never had the chance to build up the kind of self-esteem and resilience to withstand an abuser who tries to make you ‘forgive’ them.

But it’s a horrible, horrible message, especially for a young adult novel. A child should never feel obligated to forgive an abusive parent, and that is exactly what this book tells its young readers – that everything can be good again, that your mum or dad who have been hitting you and making you feel like shit since you were a toddler might one day just turn around and be nice again, that they might have a reason to be so awful and when certain things happen, they will stop being awful. (And the reason AJ’s mum had wasn’t even good. Tons of women are left with children by men who tell them they want to marry them. That is not a reason, or an excuse, to abuse your child. Nothing, ever, could excuse the kind of abuse AJ’s mum heaps on her son. Nothing.)

A lot of this novel’s theme was reconnecting with your past, learning about your background, and making decisions for your future. However, some parts of your past need to be excised, not reconnected with. An abusive parent should not be portrayed as a sympathetic person who just needs to get over a loss and learn how to love her son. She robbed her child of a childhood. She hurt her own child just because she was angry his father left her.

Parental abuse is a common theme in this book, actually – AJ’s mum is abusive, Leon’s mum was a drug-addict and neglected him and his brother, and Slim’s parents just plain ignored him. But other with Leon’s mother, where his dealing with her sickness is portrayed pretty well, and with Slim’s parents, who are never quite addressed, the portrayal of AJ’s mum is dangerous for young readers of this book, and it might be dangerous for other survivors of parental abuse. There are Young Adult books out there that actually treat parental abuse and its effects on the abused child very well, like Caraval did for example, but “The Door That Led to Where” treats the topic of parental abuse in a reckless and irresponsible way, which is the final reason why I cannot give this book more than 2 points.

About Ludovica

Ludovica is a translator, writer and aspiring librarian, which is why she already practices getting as many books into her overflowing shelves as possible. She lives in the heart of the Alps, but dreams of a life in Canada.

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