Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
You’re nobody’s rainbow.
You’re nobody’s princess.
You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.
Confession time: when I move into a new flat, I still check the back of the wardrobe for magical worlds. As a child I was always on the watch for doors in the roots of trees or the sides of hills. In the final Viriconium story, M. John Harrison gives the location of the Merrie England café in the bathroom of which one of the characters discovers a portal to the Pastel City; I travelled in the train to Huddersfield just to check if it works, (it doesn’t). For me at least, there’s something achingly powerful about the very concept of portal fantasies, the idea that this wonderful, magical world could be connected to ours by some secret passageway; that if you’re receptive to it, and you’re lucky enough, you could reach out and touch it, fall through the gaps of this mundane world with all its troubles and cares, and find yourself somewhere else, somewhere different.
Perhaps this is why some of the most iconic works of fantasy, works we read as a child that shaped our love of reading and our love of the genre, are portal fantasies. Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard Of Oz (1900), C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (1950) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (1865) have captivated generations of readers by implying that fantastical worlds could be lying just through a rabbit hole or over the rainbow, an apt metaphor for how the genre of fantasy operates, transporting us to magical worlds of the imagination from the safety of a comfortable chair.
Seanan McGuire clearly understands the appeal of portal fantasies. Her novella, Every Heart A Doorway(2016), is a tribute to these formative classics of the genre. However, McGuire cannily understands that these stories tend to leave out the most interesting part of the story – what happens to these children when, after going through these life changing experiences in a magical world, they find themselves back in reality? What would it be like to go to a wondrous realm where you finally felt like you belonged, only to be cast back out again?
This is frequently the part of the story that is the most problematic in the way it treats especially its female characters. In Peter Pan (1911) by J. M. Barrie, Peter promises to return to Wendy, but doesn’t come back until long after she’s grown up and had a daughter of her own. In The Last Battle (1956), the frustrating conclusion to the Narnia books, Susan is barred from returning to Narnia with Peter, Lucy and Edmund after their deaths because she’s developed an interest in boys and make-up in the intervening years. Every Heart A Doorway redresses this, by exploring the difficulties these children have reintegrating into society, and by giving them back their agency.
The story is set in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. It is set up by Eleanor West after she returned from her own magical world to help other children who’ve been through the same thing as her adapt. The novella follows Nancy, a girl who’s just returned from the Halls of the Dead, where she has spent decades pretending to be a statue and is promised to the Lord of the Dead, as she joins the school and begins to adapt to her new life. Nancy’s parents are thrilled to have her back and just want to give her their love and help her, but they are unable to understand her experience, or what she’s going through now. This has obvious parallels with the experiences of those who suffer from mental health problems or victims of trauma – indeed, Eleanor tells the parents of the afflicted children that her school is a sanitarium.
The children’s experiences also have parallels with those whose sexual orientation or gender identity comes between them and their family. Nancy is asexual, and her parents are having difficulty understanding this aspect of her life. Kade is a trans man who is living as an intelligent and productive young man at the school while his parents still want their little girl back. More generally still the children’s condition could also be read as a metaphor for the transition from childhood to being a young adult, the point when you grow away from being your parents’ child into your own identity as an individual member of society. McGuire explores all these themes and ideas in the novella, and throughout it all treats her characters with respect and sensitivity, whatever aspect of their pain or personal history she is exploring.
Every Heart A Doorway is an ambitious mixture of genres. It plays tribute to every portal fantasy you can think of, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland through to Narnia and beyond, and even comes up with a novel system for mapping fantastical worlds. The characters in the book find it helpful to think of where their magical worlds land on axes of Logic to Nonsense and Wicked to Virtuous, a system by which most imaginary worlds can be categorised.
It is also a locked room murder mystery, with touches of grisly horror, as the children find themselves being picked off one by one, with the body part that symbolises the trait that attracted them to their magical world removed. Indeed, the set up lends itself to this approach; McGuire’s central conceit allows her to have children who visited analogues of Wonderland and Hammer Horror films interacting in the same environment. For all the shout outs, the novella is very much its own beast. McGuire’s writing is affecting and direct, cutting straight to the emotional heart of the story. As it builds towards its conclusion, the novella provides us with some strikingly beautiful sequences, such as the children leading a skeleton through a haze of rainbows, which are quite unlike anything else.
However throughout all the mashup fun and engagement with genre tropes, Every Heart A Doorway never loses sight of its characters. In a very short space of time, McGuire establishes her characters with depth and sympathy. From Eleanor West herself, who has foregone living in her own magical world despite knowing where her door is so that she can help children who’ve been through an experience similar to hers; to Sumi, who has returned from visiting a Nonsense world but has learned that she can make her own nonsense in our world; to Jack and Jill, twins who found the freedom to express themselves in ways denied by their parents in a world straight out of a Horror film. Everyone is given a back story and motivation. In many ways the book is a rumination on how empathy allows people to support each other through their own personal traumas. What makes the gruesome murders all the more horrific is that it is one of their own is carrying it out; a destructive cycle of trauma begetting more trauma.
Yet in the end the murderer’s motivation is, of course, the desire that runs like a current through the whole book. They believe that these acts of violence are the only way to return to the magical world they have been exiled from. McGuire drills down into what ultimately makes these magical worlds so appealing. Eleanor says of Sumi:
Sumi had Nonsense in her heart, and so a door opened that would take her to a world where she could wear it proudly, not hide it away. That was her real story. Finding a place where she could be free.
Because Every Heart A Doorway is a story, for narrative purposes all the children at the school have a talent of a kind that makes them a suitable protagonist for whatever story they were whisked away to become a part of. But the appeal of portal fantasies goes beyond the validation of your skills or strengths; it’s about finding somewhere that you belong. In a real world that puts unrealistic or outdated expectations on us because of who it thinks we are rather than who we find ourselves to be, the universal appeal of this isn’t hard to understand. Who wouldn’t be able to empathise with being driven to extremes after having that snatched away from you? The Lord of the Dead sends Nancy back to our world long enough for her to be sure.
Perhaps the only thing to be sure of, then, as we pass from childhood into adulthood, is ourselves, our own identities, to be done defining ourselves by other people’s perception of us and to truly understand ourselves. This is, ultimately, what allows the children who have come to terms with their experiences to exist in the real world. The longing for somewhere else, some magical place that makes more intrinsic sense on that visceral level, never really goes away, but there are ways we can look at the world and the people around us that take the edge off. Me? I’m happy here, but there will always be part of me looking for that door.