Every Heart A Doorway is another interesting novella (unless it’s just long enough to count as a short novel) to come out of Tor.com Publishing’s lists: a standalone work from the prolific Seanan McGuire. It has a solid concept and elegant execution, but ultimately it failed to satisfy me on an emotional level: for me, its narrative catharsis doesn’t work.
So, the concept. Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school and a refuge for children—mostly adolescents—who have returned from some kind of fairyland; who have come back through a door from a goblin market or the land of the dead, a country of mad scientists or a land of dancing skeletons. Children who want to go back, because in those places they felt either special or for the first time ever, at home. There is a certain undeniable whiff of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz about these visions of otherness, along with a touch of popular-culture Peter Pan. The whole idea of readjusting to the ordinary world—a world that doesn’t believe in where you’ve been or what you’ve become—is one with many possibilities, and it seems a vastly fertile ground for stories.
We’re introduced to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children alongside Nancy, a young woman who spent six (subjective) years in a land of the dead, returning to find six months had passed. Nancy is desperate to return to where she feels she belongs, and finds the school itself a bit bewildering, especially her roommate Sumi, the handsome boy Kade, and the identical twins Jack and Jill—one a mad scientist’s apprentice, the other a monster’s pet. (Those of us interested in issues of representation will be pleased to note that Nancy is asexual, and Kade is a transman.) Soon after Nancy arrives at the school, people start dying by violence. Who’s killing the students? And why?
The characters are the best part of this novella, each of them fleshed out with distinctive personalities and distinctive wants and needs in an extremely limited space. The characters, and McGuire’s entertaining sense of whimsy. There’s a great deal to like in that.
Spoiler warning, while I attempt to explain why in the end Every Heart A Doorway just didn’t work for me.
In the end, at least two of the students—Jack and Nancy—return to their respective fairylands. The conclusion is Nancy returning by simply wanting it enough, it seems: deciding and going. And the real problem I have with Every Heart A Doorway is that I don’t feel an emotional catharsis in the idea of going “home” to a special place where you are special and/or welcome to be yourself. Because for me home and self are both made things, constructed from what you do and what you are and what’s done to you: it’s the sum of one’s experiences and scars. Once you get comfortable in your own skin—or at least make peace with it—anywhere can be home. So there’s an emotional disconnect there for me.
And the lack of catharsis is heightened by the impression that the return to her fairyland doesn’t cost Nancy anything. There’s never any question that she’d make another choice, and no real sense that she’d grieve what’s left behind. And the lack of cost, of consequence, leaves me unsatisfied: it makes the conclusion, and thus the novella entire, seem slight.
Slight, but I can’t deny that it’s fun.