The search for identity and belonging is explored in Seanan McGuire‘s new novella, Every Heart a Doorway (Macmillan/Tor, review copy through NetGalley). It follows students at a home for Wayward Children. What sets these children apart is that they are all coming to terms with the experience of having returned to the ‘real world’ after having spent time in parallel worlds.
The idea of a child being stolen away to fairyland is a common one in fairytales and fantasy fiction. But rather than dealing with the adventures in a strange place, McGuire’s novella looks at what happens after the end of that adventure, how people reintegrate into society and deal with the consequences of their experience. To that extent, Every Heart a Doorway is reminiscent of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairytale. But where Joyce deals with the circumstances of one person, McGuire shows us a range of responses, albeit that all of the children in her story are people who had a positive experience that they want to remember. Some even aspire to return to their alternative worlds, if they can find the way back. And McGuire’s story is fundamentally about growing up and asserting a new identity, often in the face of family pressure and expectation.
Every Heart a Doorway follows Nancy, who has recently returned from the world of the dead. She is sent to the home by her parents, who want their little girl back as she was before she spent time away. They are the ones who are struggling to adjust to the changes in their daughter. Where Nancy has learned to prize stillness and has changed the way she dresses to favour neutral colours and floaty fabrics, her parents want the boisterous daughter they used to know who wore bright colours. Their refusal to accept that their daughter is growing and changing is alienating them from one another. Nancy is desperate to find her way back to her world of the dead, a place where she has found and earned acceptance for the person she has become.
The other children that Nancy meets all have similar tales of alienation and parental expectation. Together, they are finding ways of dealing with their experiences. But one of the children is less accepting than the others, and Nancy soon finds herself embroiled in a series of gruesome murders, where children at the home are killed and mutilated. As the new girl, and with an association with a world of the dead, suspicion naturally begins to fall on her.
But the murder mystery is just a plot device to explore the core issues of the novel. Every Heart a Doorway prizes our individualism, and self-actualisation, playing to a very Millenial view of the world that we are all special. it champions those striving to find their path in the world. In McGuire’s book, each of us has a unique place and world designed especially for us. Some of us are lucky enough to find it. With effort and the right conditions, the truly lucky ones among us get the chance to stay there.
Goodreads rating: 4*