A Narrow Door: Review

A Narrow Door
Joanne Harris
Pegasus Crime, 2022

Joanne Harris continually amazes me. Her writing prowess, her vast breadth of knowledge, her wit and open-eyed clarity all make for fascinating reads. Every single time. I will admit to being small enough to feel jealous of her skill when I open her books. And A Narrow Door is no exception. This book has gone right to the top of my favorites list. Particularly for this particular time!

This is the timely story of a woman who has succeeded in a male world, possibly the most exclusively male world left in this century — the hoary testosterone-soaked halls of British education. She has succeeded against all the usual odds as well as quite a few odd specific challenges. And she’s managed to open a door for girls to follow her into this male space by integrating the school of which, through not altogether savory methods, she is named Head. Note the title: it is not the only door, it is a door; but it is narrow, thin, hidden, difficult. One has to be small, and perhaps devious, to fit through it.

This is the path that Rebecca Buckfast has taken to success. She has made herself small and unassuming, inconspicuous except for the blatant fact of her gender in opposition to those around her. There is an emphasis on the smiles that she has pinned on her pained and frightened face in order to please, in order to keep that door open at least the width of a forced grin. She muses on all the ways she has used her feminine beauty to clear barriers, with varying levels of guilt (though always success, because…). She is so effective in the theatre of placating male egos that she shows nobody who or what she is and, in repressing her self, gradually loses that person. She has no friendships and feels that she is incapable of love, even for her own daughter. She moves from one thing to the next with no fixed goal other than survival. It’s not exaggeration to say that she hasn’t actually lived, that the personality she might have become was murdered along with her brother in early childhood.

A Narrow Door is the path that all women take to succeed in the male world. We keep our heads down and make ourselves small to fit in at the servants’ entrances. We smile when we are hurting, and we soothe the pain of others. We assuage the bottomless insecurity of those who come through the front door — because nobody is free of imposter syndrome, nobody is as archetypically male as the gatekeepers demand, no matter what strong face is shown to the world. But we women seek the lesser ways and use our bodies to break barriers and clear the course, with varying degrees of subtlety. We hide who we are. And we become thin.

To be clear, this is fiction. I don’t believe that there are dead bodies littered along the path of those women who make it through the architecture of hierarchy in this world. Well, not many anyway. But Rebecca’s method and practice are very familiar. I think any woman reading Rebecca’s story will see herself. Sometimes murder doesn’t have a physical body count, after all; and we’ve all had to kill ourselves at least a little to make our ways in this world of zero-sum competition and male dominance. Many women, in particular, enter old age with no clear idea of who they are because who they might have been was jettisoned while trying to fit through that damned door. Like Rebecca, we haven’t lived. And we’ve done murder.

A Narrow Door reminds us all of the lethal paths we’ve forced our-selves to walk in order to reach this place in time. And we need that reminder. We need to see the damages we’ve inflicted on ourselves and our daughters to understand this pain we’re experiencing. We need to remember how big we were before trying to force our bodies through that door. And maybe we need to find a way out. Because all that is happening right now flows from this accommodation of that narrow door. All that causes us to be less than who we are comes from this forced entry into places that are built on male dominance and aggression. All that keeps us small comes from smiling when we do murder. And if we have to kill to get in, do we really want to be in that place? Wouldn’t it be better to lock that door and turn our backs on the whole thing? Wouldn’t it be better to tear down the architecture entirely?

Now, if you just want a scary story, haunted by the creepy plumbing in life, well, A Narrow Door is that book also. It’s a fantastic tale of bloody crimes and gruesome urban folklore. It is a tale of the horrible things children do to each other and of the horrible things adults do to them. It is a whisper of fear that will keep you turning pages just so you don’t have to turn off the light… yet… It is a perfectly paced thriller, with enough braided subplots and red herrings to keep you guessing right up to the end. And the end has its own abrupt but satisfying twist. So if you’re looking for a great mystery to while away the long summer days — especially if you’re suffering the usual tedious isolations of the plague era — then this is definitely your book.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out that this book was written in that tedious isolation. Not only is this a product of COVID quarantine, but Harris has also gone through breast cancer treatment in the last couple years. I honestly have no idea how you maintain creativity and coherence during surgery and chemo. And A Narrow Door was not Harris’s only project undertaken in the last few years! This is a monumental achievement. It doesn’t make the book any better or worse, but it colors how you read it. With that adversity in mind, you recognize that here in your hands is a tangible living triumph, that there are other ways. This physical book represents a path to true success that never even approaches, let alone accommodates, that narrow door. 

©Elizabeth Anker 2022