In 1901, a little girl finds a blue door standing in a field and walks through into another world. So begins “The Ten Thousand Doors of January,” the debut novel by Alix E. Harrow, whose interlocking stories serve as a love letter to storytelling.
The book has echoes of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Coraline,” the Narnia books, and other portal fantasies without cribbing from any. The main character, January Scaller, is named after Janus, the god of past, future, doors, and thresholds. The plot, which is thoughtful rather than action-packed, hinges on the written word providing an escape. The writing is lovely, with a farm described as set in a “green wrinkle” of land, and it turns soaring whenever the subject is books. “Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges,” January writes.
As a biracial girl in 20th-century Vermont, January has grown up as the ward of financier and collector Mr. Locke. Her dad, Julian, is sent around the world to bring back fantastic items for Mr. Locke, while January is meant to be a good girl who stays home and obediently trots out to be stared at by society. Against this suffocating existence, January has allies: Jane, her Kenyan governess; Samuel, the grocer’s son; and her dog, Bad (named for Sindbad, the only explorer who didn’t make the world smaller). He is, needless to say, a Very Good Boy.
Ten years after her first door, January finds a leatherbound book about Adelaide Lee Larson, a 19th-century farm girl who also feels constrained by circumstances and longs to escape Elsewhere.
Readers are likely to guess how the stories intersect, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasures of this carefully crafted ode to the power of the written word.