Book Review: A Narrow Door (Malbry, #3) by Joanne Harris

Book Review: A Narrow Door (Malbry, #3) by Joanne Harris

A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a digital copy of this novel from the publisher, OrangeSky Audio, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Narrow Door is one of the smartest, most interesting and sympathetically voiced pieces of crime fiction I’ve read in a very long time. The only other modern book in the genre I’ve enjoyed this much was We Begin at the End, but this book had more in common with The Maidens and The Divines, both of which disappointed me last year. It was a perfectly paced, pitch perfect blend of mystery and academia that captivated me from the prologue through to the epilogue. I hung on every word. This is a story that felt so incredibly real, which such a delicious building tension, that I thought about it almost constantly when I wasn’t reading it. It found its way into my dreams, which has become a rare thing as I’ve gotten older. And the ending was something that, in hindsight, I might should have been able to see. Especially considering the opening. But I didn’t.

“But nothing stays buried forever, I thought. The past is a gift that keeps giving, pulling names from a big black hat.”

“Sometimes, burial is best. Why would you want to dig up the past? Especially when the mystery is so much better than the truth.”

This is a book that I stumbled across on NetGalley and requested mere days before its U.S. release. I regret that I couldn’t read it before publication, but I’m so grateful that my request was approved anyway. I had no idea this was the third book in a series until I had already read 10% of it, but it wasn’t to the story’s detriment. It was very enjoyable on its own. I didn’t feel as though I was missing anything vital. However, I will be going back and reading more of not only this series but the rest of Harris’s backlog. Three of her books are sitting on my physical shelves: Chocolat, The Gospel of Loki, and The Testament of Loki. The fact that I’ve never read any of her work both saddens and delights me. I feel like I’ve missed so much, and yet I’ve suddenly discovered a new-to-me author with over 20 novels in their backlist. It’s like finding a doubloon that leads to an entire treasure chest.

“Hope is the thing that kills you… Hope is what breaks when you hit the ground.”

The audio was absolutely brilliant, and is probably one of the best audiobooks I’ve experienced. Two narrators are featured: Alex Kingston of Doctor Who fame; and Steven Pacey, who narrates Abercrombie’s First Law series and is one of my favorite audiobook narrators. While Kingston delivered the majority of the story as Headmaster Rebecca Buckfast, and she did so with fantastic aplomb, Pacey’s additions as Roy Straitley were a lovely break in the narrative, giving you a chance to take a breath in the midst of Rebecca’s very compelling and tense story. Had I not recognized the narrators on NetGalley, I would never have requested this book and wouldn’t have stumbled upon a new author whose backlist I’m so incredibly excited to read.

“I have never believed in the mantra ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’, but I do believe that what does not kill me gives me the chance to fight back.”

Rebecca is the new Headmaster of what was formerly an all-boys’ private school that is opening up to girls for the first time in its history. Seeing this school and others like it through her eyes was an enlightening experience. There’s a lot of discourse here about women in academia, especially in private schools. Even when Rebecca is able to break into the “old boys’ club” atmosphere, she isn’t treated like the rest of her colleagues. One of the schools in this book doesn’t even have a lady’s restroom; the women are instead forced to use the handicap facilities, which goes a long way to showing how their male counterparts view them. Being female isn’t a disability. But so many men in so many professions seem to believe so. Harris managed to both romanticize academia, as readers tend to do, and shine a light on its underbelly.

“The mistake you made was one of scale. Men always do, used as they are to taking the main entrance. Women must be more discreet. All we need is a narrow door. And when we have crept in unseen, like a spider through a keyhole, we spin ourselves an empire of silk, and fill you with astonishment.”

I absolutely love an unreliable narrator when done right. There are so many thrillers that rely heavily on this trope while not doing it particularly well. But Harris used the trope so deftly, and I truly felt as though I was making Rebecca’s discoveries alongside her. And the difference in tone between the Rebecca of her memories and the one telling her story to Straitley was fascinating. There were times when I couldn’t tell if there was a supernatural element to the book, or if that was simply mind games being played on or by the narrators. That balance was kept on a razor-sharp edge that delighted me to no end. I was honestly more than a little in awe so how well Harris balanced every aspect of this story.

“Children see the world differently. They filter their realities through fairy tales and metaphors.”

The setup of A Narrow Door was fantastic. I was equally invested in the framework story and the coldcase mystery housed within it. It’s also one of the best academia novels I’ve read, though it’s told from the perspective of teachers instead of students. I would comfortably shelve this alongside The Secret History and The Orchard. While not quite as philosophical, and a bit more plot-driven, the writing was absolutely superb and the school atmosphere permeated the story very well. The divisions of this book alone, based around the five rivers in the Greek Underworld, enchanted me. As did the frequent use of Latin during Roy Straitley’s perspective chapters. This was an incredibly intelligent book in so many ways, but it never felt as though Harris was prideful of that fact or using it as purposeful misdirection. This is the kind of smart book that makes you feel smarter while reading it, instead of feeling like it’s talking down to you.

“Memory is like a young child: it is immensely suggestible. It is coloured by feelings; dreams; other people’s convictions. And, like its friend, the subconscious, it loves to deal in metaphor, so that Memory often leaves home dressed in a sensible outfit, and returns in a tutu and fairy wings, with its face painted like a tiger.”

There’s so much I want to say about A Narrow Door that I can’t even get my thoughts in order. I know it’s only the first week of January, but I can confidently say that this novel will appear on my list of favorites for the year. It’s a wonderful blending of a smart plot, impeccable writing, sympathetic characters, and a mystery that will keep you guessing. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, or dark academia, or novels with a strong voice that never grates on your nerves, you should give this one a go. Especially on audio. And if you love all of the aforementioned building blocks in a novel, I’m begging you to track down a copy of this book.

You can order this book from: Blackwell’s | (Support Independent Bookstores)Amazon US | Amazon UK | Audible | (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide!)

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