The Door That Led To Where is one of those book titles that makes you wonder how it came into being. Was it the beginning of the story? By which I mean, did Sally Gardner start with the title and build the story around it? Or was it one of those titles that was absurdly difficult to to think up once the book had been written?
Whichever it was, it’s a brilliant title, because the concept of the book is a door between two times*. It’s a very specific door: no Doctor Who time travelling here; this door links the present time with 1830 only. Time also runs at the same speed, so a day spent in 1830 will eat up a day here too.
Our hero is sixteen-year-old Aiden Jobey, though until he’s offered a job by a law firm, he’s never known his full name, having been told all his life that he was christened with the letters A and J. He doesn’t get on with his mum, a woman damaged by her relationships with men and angered by AJ’s lack of commitment to school, resulting in an A* in English but fails in every other subject. His father is dead, he’s been told, but why or how he doesn’t know, and the relationship with his mother has deteriorated to the point at which he can’t ask her.
AJ’s best things in life are his two friends Slim and Leon, though both of them have troubles of his own. Slim is seeing a girl called Sicknote (my favourite name in the whole book) which is dangerous because Sicknote has been Moses’ girlfriend for ever, and you don’t mess with Moses. And Leon’s mother is critically ill and he’s going off the rails. So between the three of them, they cover many of the trials and tribulations of life.
AJ is miraculously offered a job, and bizarrely the lawyers seem to know more about him than he does himself. But before you go thinking this is The Firm, Sally Gardner takes us down a completely different track. AJ discovers a key that allows him to pass through ‘Jobey’s Door’ and thus explore London in 1830, coming and going whenever he likes.
There’s more to it than that, of course. There’s a poisoning (more than one, actually) by white arsenic, there are developing affections, some of them romantic, there’s a modern-day court case that hangs on vital evidence which has been hidden in 1830, and there’s AJ’s own determination to find out what happened to his father and thus what sort of person he himself might be.
It’s a book to savour, to wallow in, to take your time over. The plot moves along so that you might not notice how beautiful the writing is, and that’s because of the skill of the author. It’s a book that will deliver more, and differently, on each re-reading, and which will mean different things to each reader. And it raises questions too about ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ and what advantages and disadvantages there are to living in the present day. It’s not spoiling the plot to say that AJ takes both his friends through the door, and they all have important decisions to make about which side of it they will stay…
As a class reader, it is brimming over with possibilities for discussion and exploration, and I hope teachers and librarians will have it on their radar. I’d also like to add that the hardback edition is really beautiful, with the dust jacket cut away in the shape of an open door, and the bound cover of the book displaying a black and white map of London and its surrounding areas in 1830. Clever and stylish – kudos to the design department at Hot Key!
Sally Gardner’s website can be found here, and I’m sure The Door That Led To Where will be popping up on many awards shortlists over the next year or so – and well deserved, too.
*Having written this, I’m now starting to wonder if it should really be The Door That Led To When – was that on the list of possible titles, I wonder?