The Large Door, or What I found in Amsterdam


My second novel, The Large Door, is published by Boiler House Press in Norwich, as part of their debut full-length fiction list, which also includes books by Ruby Cowling, Ben Borek and Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The Large Door is a sad comedy of language and desire that grew out of a collision between an earlier published short story (‘Festschrift’, in Gorse) and Brigid Brophy’s novel The Snow Ball. I wrote more about the book’s beginnings and inception in a blog post here.

Thus far, and happily, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive:

The Large Door is a haunting work, charged with wistful possibilities of what might have been […] It is poised, suspenseful and enigmatic, with a hint of brute eroticism. More than that, it has heart.” – Andrew Dickson, in The Financial Times.

“Speaking, touching, looking, moving, texting, hiding: these form Gibbs’s toolkit as he examines the ways in which we communicate – and avoid communicating – with one another […] The Large Door has echoes throughout of Saul Bellow’s famous line that “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” But it is also very, very funny – Gibbs doesn’t miss the chance for a bit of campus-novel preposterousness. I can’t think of many authors who are capable of doing so many things so well, all at once.” – Chris Deerin, in The Big Issue.

Kate McLoughlin, as you’d hope for in a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, appreciated the academic setting, and even picked up on the way that the subjunctive mood colours the novel:

In his new novel, The Large Door, Jonathan Gibbs captures the academic conference universe to perfection, right down to the canapés, the eye-glazing, colon-punctuated paper titles and the corrosive gossip. […] Inevitably, given that the conference is an assembly of language experts, communication is messy and misfires. The same can’t be said of Gibbs’s prose. The fiction is at one beautifully controlled and acrobatic, and, as in Randall, one always has the sense that a wry intelligence is at work.

Then Daniel Davis Wood, on This is Splice, gave it the full analytic treatment: an LRB-style 4,000-worder:

“When The Large Door is set beside the monumental Randall, I imagine there will be an inclination for some readers to diminish its lasting value, to conceive of it as chamber music within earshot of a symphony. In a certain sense it may be so, and ultimately I do still feel that Randall is the better novel, but when I take pause and think twice, there’s a thought I keep coming back to. It’s this: if there’s a sense of achievement to a novel like Randall, given that it amply delivers on its promise of sprawling iconoclasm, there’s a similar sense to The Large Door, given the way it purports to offer pleasures of a more restrained sort and yet manages to invest them with unexpected depths of significance. Like the painting Jenny admires, its meaning overflows the limitations of its form. Despite its slimness, to look up from its pages and away from its words is to find oneself looking at a world that still bears the impression of its questions.” – Satire, Opening onto Sincerity

It is, frankly, wonderful to read such an incisive and generous response to my book. There are spoilers of sorts in the review, but I wouldn’t won’t to stop anybody reading it.

(Nina Allen wrote an interesting response to Daniel’s piece here.)

Neil Griffiths wrote what he calls an “unconventional” review in Review 31, ‘Six Ways to Begin a Review of The Large Door’, taking half a dozen different approaches to the book and its publication context. It’s an interesting read – and an interesting take on the review form. In it he says:

After finishing the novel and agreeing to review it, I was certain quoting from it would be easy. I’d make my case for its beauty, clarity, its poise with quotes from the novel. But I can’t, the writing is too integrated with its purpose, it’s too felicitous. […] My first and only instinct when thinking about this novel is to say: ‘buy it, read it, it’s very fine indeed.’

Houman Barekat posted a fine review in the online journal Full Stop, praising the “midcentury elegance of  [its] prose style, with its playfully clever third-person narrator redolent of Muriel Spark, all wry knowingness and winking mischief.” He went on to say:

Perhaps it was out of deference to the post-MeToo zeitgeist — or some reductive reading of it — that the larger publishing houses passed on this smart, deftly crafted, funny and perceptive novel.

Henry Hitchings, who generously tweeted about the book (see below) also gave the book as his recommendation for the podcast of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review for 3rd August, calling it “an excellent novel” and saying:

Randall, about the British art scene, came out about five years ago and was brilliant and incredibly clever. This one is in the same idiom. If anything it’s more brilliant and more clever. It’s set an academic conference and the main character is a linguist who is an expert in the subjunctive mood and the book plays with the idea of subjunctivity to an extraordinarily dizzying degree, and yet this is actually very sharp, funny, human book.

Here are some other things people have said about it:

Clever and seductive, The Large Door blends all the ambiguity of a classic Dutch interior painting with contemporary academic bitchery and a very real, and human, quest for love. To read it is like looking into a convex mirror of challenging and constantly changing perspectives. – Catherine Taylor, writer and critic

An absorbing and deeply satisfying book. It captures what it’s like to feel adrift, confused, and panicked at a hinge moment in life; it also evokes the pain and melancholy that can accompany desire. All this in prose that is brisk, gleaming, and precise. Utterly compelling. – Katherine Angel, author of Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell

I’ve read The Large Door book slowly, and with sustained admiration. It extends the reach of the university novel into new and unsettling territory. The men and women alike are terribly well drawn. Gibbs has achieved that special kind of flexible and transparent hermaphroditism one so wants both as a novelist and as a reader. To be able to inhabit different genders without identifying with them is always the aim of sympathetic observation and social comedy. The novel is very melancholic and touching, but the emotion floats; we never wallow in distress. Somehow, perhaps because the sensuousness of the writing is so lightly-worn, we’re buoyed up in their midst. – Will Eaves, author of Murmur.

Jonathan Gibbs has done it again. After his underappreciated debut Randall, he’s back with The Large Door, a tricksy, witty, beautifully controlled novel that will beguile anyone who’s ever attended an academic conference. Trapdoors on every page. – Henry Hitchings, author of The Language Wars and Dr Johnson’s Dictionary.

A compelling novel in which forensic social observation merges with an ingenious exploration of contemporary ideas and theories. – Richard Beard, author of Acts of the Assassins

We had launches of the Boiler House fiction list in Norwich and London. Here we all are.


Nathan Hamilton (ed), me, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Philip Langeskov (ed), Ruby Cowling, Ben Borek