Every Heart a Doorway, along with its sequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, were some of the most popular books featuring on 2017 Favourites Lists on Booktube. I was drawn into the hype and practically dropped everything to rush down to the library and pick up this first book in the Wayward Children series. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about and started reading it as soon as I got home. The story sounded fascinating: a boarding school for children who have gone through doorways (think Narnia or Wonderland) and come out the other side, finding themselves back in reality and unable to cope.
Right away I struggled with the writing and it took me quite a few pages to get into the rhythm and style of the story. This confusion seemed to be echoed by the main character, Nancy, as she arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. I’m going to assume that children who come to Eleanor’s school are looking for answers and reassurance, but it seems hard to come by. Everyone, including Eleanor, talks in riddles and none of the students are particularly welcoming to newcomers, making the story equally as confusing for the reader as it is for Nancy.
She was a story, not an epilogue. And if she chose to narrate her own life one word at a time as she descended the stairs to meet her newest arrival, that wasn’t hurting anyone. Narration was a hard habit to break, after all. Sometimes it was all a body had.
Although I didn’t find Nancy to be a very compelling character (I’ll get to that later) one thing I did appreciate was that she accepted her place at the Home for Wayward Children and tried her best to assimilate with the other students. She isn’t antagonistic or rude, she doesn’t try to run away, and she’s far less annoying than some of the other characters, who I grew to despise almost immediately.
One such character is Nancy’s roommate, Sumi. Sumi is a Japanese-American girl who has come back from a world resembling the game Sugar Rush from the movie Wreck it Ralph, AKA Confection. She is so much like Vanellope von Schweetz that I just couldn’t shake the mental image every time I saw her name on the page. She really drove me to distraction with her nonsensical babbling and rudeness.
Speaking of characters, something this book is celebrated for is its diversity and representation. Nancy identifies as asexual, another student is transgender and the cast of characters are from a diverse range of backgrounds. This is also mirrored by the different worlds they each went to, with the students being able to empathise with each others experience, but not share them exactly. It’s worth mentioning that although there is a lot of diversity, this isn’t the main cause for tension in the plot, which was refreshing.
I absolutely loved the idea that we’d get glimpses into other worlds throughout this book but the way it was done didn’t click with me and I found it difficult to connect with the worlds. The worlds are categorised into groups such as High Nonsense, High Logic, Wicked, Virtue, Whimsy and Wild, which was so cartoonish that I couldn’t take them seriously. One of the characters is from a fairy world where everything is tiny and I could almost hear Jerry Seinfeld’s voice in my head, a’la Bee Movie.
Along with the story of Nancy’s experience at Eleanor’s school, and glimpses into the world she has come back from, the Halls of the Dead, we have us a murder mystery. Honestly, I think the book is just too short to sustain so much plot. We end up missing out on character development, world building, and the foreshadowing that is needed to bring a murder mystery to a satisfying conclusion. What could have made this book better, is more of everything.
Another interesting aspect of the story, was the main character serving as the quiet observer. Most of the story is told from her POV (third person limited) but none of the action happens to her and she isn’t the instigator of any of the reactions. I’ve often wondered if this could work, where we see more dynamic characters and events unfolding from the eyes of someone on the sidelines, but I’m not convinced it works here, or anywhere. We randomly get a few paragraphs of other character’s POV, but I found it jarring and inconsistent with the rest of the writing.
I went into this book excited for the story, and I think it did have the potential to grab me. It’s a short book and ultimately I think that’s its downfall. The writing itself isn’t my thing, a bit too whimsical for my taste, but I accept that’s my personal preference and other readers will definitely enjoy the prose. I read Every Heart a Doorway over a weekend and the characters, and both the story of the school itself and the murder mystery, had me intrigued. Unfortunately the ending (again, both the book ending and the resolution of the mystery) had me rolling my eyes. It felt too rushed on both accounts. I closed this book wanting more, and not in a good way.
I’m giving Every Heart a Doorway 3 stars. Let me know if you’ve read this book and whether you loved it or like me, felt it could have done with more.