Sixteen-year-old AJ Flynn holds a key is his hand. It has his name and date of birth on it. But it’s a key to a door that leads to where? Or when?
On the other side of the door is a tumbledown house, a city booming with trade, and a murder mystery that echoes through the centuries.
AJ steps through the door and finds himself at the centre of it all. It is London and it is 1830.
Life is tough in 1830 – sickness murder and crime abound – but is it so different from the London of now that AJ and his friends know?
AJ needs to find the answers to the mystery and decide where he belongs.
I first encountered Sally Gardner’s writing when I read I, Coriander, winner of the 2005 Nestle Children’s Book Prize. Since then, Sally has written prolifically for young adults, with Maggot Moon and Tinder garnering particular acclaim, so I was really please to get the chance to read and review The Door That Led To Where.
It’s difficult to pin this book down to any one genre, with its elements of murder mystery, thriller, historical sections but also fantasy, as AJ discovers the key to a door that allows him to travel between the present day and 1830. I really enjoyed following AJ – and the winding thread of the plot – from a rundown estate, via legal chambers in Gray’s Inn and an conversation with a strange old man, to a dusty old house in pre-Victorian London. Along the way, AJ begins to discover more about his family, especially his missing father, and uncovers a sinister killer operating across centuries.
It’s not just the plot that magical; I really loved Sally Gardner’s prose style. Her use of description is beautifully unconventional, with intriguing sensory adjectives evoking colours, sounds and textures without falling back on familiar cliches. This creates a sense of something unknown and mysterious, while still feeling realistic and recognisable – her description brings to mind places and people immaculately. Whether characters were in a grubby abandoned flat in a high-rise concrete tower, or a cosy inn two hundred years ago, I felt equally at home as a reader.
AJ himself is an interesting main character; growing up in a single parent family and taking refuge with a friendly neighbour, he struggles to learn in noisy classrooms despite being thoughtful, creative and curious. Characters like this are starting to become more common in young adult fiction but are still very much in the minority, so AJ was a refreshing change. Gardner does not show him as finding life outside school much more difficult because he’s not done well in his exams. Once he’s given a chance, he takes it and does well, although he is surprised to be given an opportunity to work somewhere as prestigious as a legal chambers.
AJ is a typical teenager in that his relationship with his mum, and her live-in boyfriend, is fraught, his friendship with best mates Slim and Leon are tight and he’s prone to risky behaviour. He’s also loyal to a fault and determined to discover what lies behind the crime and cover-up in which he’s become entangled. It’s great to see young people from less privileged backgrounds, economically and in terms of their education, being shown to be just as worthy of taking a leading role.
The main point for me about The Door That Led To Where is that it’s a fantastic adventure. The characters are compelling, the thriller-style pace is fast and pushes you on from one scene to the next, and the time travel elements are well dealt with, not fiddling around with details about the mechanics which could start to sound strained. Instead, we’re left with an odd, uncanny phenomenon that fits perfectly with the just-off-kilter tone of the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, particularly references to Dickens and the comparisons between modern-day and historical London, which (it turns out) are not so different after all.
Having romped through this, I’m looking forward to reading more of Gardner’s young adult writing in 2015.
The Door That Led To Where is now out in paperback from Hot Key Books, at £6.99
Thank you to Hot Key Books for providing a review copy.