Seanan McGuire’s novella, Every Heart a Doorway, deserves every compliment it has gotten since its publication in April of 2016. It’s a kind of queer, dark-ish fairy tale about all those children who slip through the cracks and find themselves in a magical realm, be it through a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, or a mysterious doorway, which is sometimes there and sometimes not. Its main premise is a fascinating exploration of what happens when these children grow up, when they are inevitably sent back to reality. The thing is, that these fantasy realms are designed to be “the perfect home” for these children. Or rather, the fantasy realms beacon and pull inside them children who fit them. But then, when the children are sent back, they go, in a sense, into withdrawal. The horrible thing is, that it is withdrawal from The Home. Not only do the children need to come to terms with their return to reality, but they also need to come to terms with their banishment, their expulsion from their fairy home, sometimes, after spending years there.
Some children end up going adrift, left to handle the shock of return on their own. The lucky ones, end up in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. That is where well-wishing but desperate parents and grandparents send the troubled children, with promises of “sorting them out”. Eleanor West, a fairyland castaway herself, does help the children, but she knows better than to think they are making it all up, or that what has been broken may ever be made fully right again. West’s home for Wayward Children it not a correctional facility but a haven, in which students can speak freely about their experiences and be believed, a place where they don’t need to pretend.
If the name of the story, or its premise reminds you of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, you could not be more mistaken. Not that there is anything wrong with Ransom Riggs’ dark YA book series. I enjoyed it to bits. But McGuire’s story has little to no resemblance to it. While both stories share an eerie atmosphere, and don’t shy away from touching on the subject of death, Every Heart is in its own special way far darker and far more adult than Miss Peregrine.
A Queer Little Story
One of the things which makes Every Heart such a delightful read is that it is one of a very small number of works which acknowledges the existence of, and makes room for, non-heteronormative adolescents. To be honest, McGuire’s story seems, at times, to be trying too hard to be liberal and inclusive. In a single short read McGuire offers an a-sexual girl, at transgender boy (f2m), a girl is so immersed in her role as “mad scientist” that it seems to come at the expense of her femininity, etc.
Then again, it’s hard to complain about that, after so many years of literally no positive representation of LGBTQ people. It feels good to meet such protagonists between the pages. Especially dear to me is the representation of a-sexuality in the form of Nancy, the story’s heroine.
In addition, to be fair, the feeling of over-trying does not come in the way of the story telling, in the sense that it is there, but it isn’t the center of things. It isn’t a story about LGBTQ youth. What is at the center is an original combination of a meta-textual portal fantasy and a chilling “who done it” mystery. It might not be perfect, but it sure is pretty darn close.
Peeking through the portal
As I have just mentioned, because this is a story about children who return from magical realms, it has a strong meta-textual side to it; one which I am sure will make it a primary source of study in university courses. For example, it offers an intriguing hypothesis regarding why more girls than boys end up in fantasy land:
Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lundy. “They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.
While we may depend on the silence of women, Every Heart a Doorway is one of those books that makes me happy we don’t rely on women’s silence all that much, because it’s a woman who wrote this spellbinding insightful story
In the end, I could not help but sympathize in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Like them, I felt I’ve been transported to a magical place, gone through a fantastic adventure and then whisked away, too soon, back to reality, when the story was done. I can’t wait to return to McGuire’s world, in the hope that she continues to develop it, and give her audience something to really sink their teeth into.
Every Heart a Doorway
Wayward Children #1
By: Seanan McGuire
Published by: Tor (April 5, 2016)