Reviewed by Annabel
Once Sally Gardner gained enough confidence to start writing novels for older children and teens, already being a fabulous illustrator and author of some great stories for younger and middle grade children, there has been no stopping her. Her imagination has taken flight, and she has produced a body of work which has won both plaudits and prizes. The first of these, I, Coriander, a historical novel, won the Smarties Prize in 2005 and Maggot Moon, set in an alternative 1950s Britain, was awarded the Costa Children’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal in 2013.
Most of Gardner’s novels have a historical setting – from I, Coriander in the 17th century, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade set during the French Revolution to WWII in The Double Shadow and beyond. Most of her books have something else in common, and that is magic – it can be subtle and in the background or an integral part of the story, it can be scary or benign. However it appears, she handles it brilliantly. In The Door That Led To Where the magic resides in one place – in this case, a time portal between the present day and 1830s London – but I’m jumping ahead of myself.
The novel opens with AJ’s mother, whom he imagines as a ‘red reptile with a poison tongue’, simultaneously cooking a bacon sarnie for her ‘blancmange slug-of-a-man’ boyfriend, and berating AJ:
‘A bloody waste of space, that’s what you are. Sixteen years and what’s to show for it? One bleeding GCSE.’
AJ’s mum, however, produces an official letter from a law firm. She’s got him a job interview and won’t take no for an answer. ‘If it’s cleaning the bogs, you’ll bloody well take it.’ So AJ finds himself at Baldwin Groat where Mr Groat calls him Aiden Jobey – he had never known what AJ stood for! It turns out his mum had been a cleaner there, and after explaining that he only got his A* in English GCSE because he spent all his time in the library reading, AJ ends up getting a trial as a ‘baby clerk’.
One day, he’s asked to do filing in the old library when he finds a large old key with his name and date of birth on. With help from the Professor, who seems to know all about the goings on at Baldwin Groat, he soon he ends up sneaking into a private car park where a door becomes visible in the wall.
Going through, he is in a house in Clerkenwell in the 1830s where he is expected, and his adventure really begins. Everyone, it seems, wants to be in control of the portal and they all want his key. 1830s London is full of crime, sickness and murder – those using the portal had been involved in antiques smuggling and AJ has put their schemes in jeopardy.
He returns to the present day to find that one of his friends is on the run from a gang of thugs – where better for Slim to hide than in the 1830s. Slim finds himself totally at home there:
‘Century reset, my life reset. I’m not going to give all this up just for a job on Dalston Market.’
AJ’s other friend Leon, in trouble with a drugs dealer, soon joins Slim there. The parallels between London lives past and present are many – from gangs to poverty, sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed.
Gardner keeps the pace of the central mystery rolling along quickly and you need to keep your wits about you to keep track of all the characters each side of the portal. There is plenty more adventure in both times, including poisonings, lunatic asylums and beatings, added to which AJ will fall for a Victorian girl, Miss Esme. There are crimes to solve and his own family history to explore too. The big question remains though – ‘when’ will they all, and particularly AJ, choose to live?
Gardner’s text is suffused with Dickensian character and, fittingly, bookish AJ has devoured his novels. Of course, in 1830, Dickens was yet to publish; his first works didn’t appear until later than decade, but the things that would influence Dickens himself are all present. Being steeped in Dickens, AJ knows how to approach his blossoming romance with Miss Esme too. I also loved a neat reference to a later different novel with a portal – in the back of a wardrobe – need I say more.
The three young men haven’t had a good start in life but show how adaptable they are. Given the right chances, they will make something of themselves. It was lovely to see how well Slim fitted in; having relied on his wits for so long, he is able to use his experience to forge an improved career for himself as a merchant rather than costermonger.
AJ is a great narrator. He may be a bit cross with his mum but, again and again, he proves himself to be a kind young man. Equally impressive is the friendship between AJ, Slim and Leon which forms the bedrock of this novel.
One small caveat which only applies to younger readers: there is some proper swearing in this book which I thought was realistic but unnecessary (if Eastenders can do it…). But for this, I would have recommended The Door That Led To Where for 11+.
Teens upwards will love this novel. As an adventure story, it is more straight-forward than Gardner’s others in terms of the narrative perhaps, but it is no less fully realised. The two time periods leap off the page and the plot has a satisfying conclusion. I’d love to find out what happens to Slim – there’s a definite sequel opportunity. Whatever Sally Gardner chooses to write next though, I’ll be reading it.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and is still searching for her own portal for adventure.
Sally Gardner, The Door That Led To Where (Hot Key Books, London, 2015) 978-1471401084, 288 pp., hardback.