This review contains spoilers.
Garth Nix’s novel Mister Monday – the first in the Keys to the Kingdom series, which consists of seven books that are, yes, all named after days of the week – is one of those children’s books that, like Alice in Wonderland and much of Roald Dahl’s work, presents us with an exaggerated and apparently nonsensical view of the adult world in order to address concerns about growing up and becoming part of it. The novel’s prologue tells us about a sentient Will whose seven trustees, unwilling to execute it, have divided up into seven pieces which they have placed under constant guard; one of those pieces, however, has escaped, and is busy running around trying to be fulfilled. Back in our world, or a version of it, schoolboy Arthur Penhaligon collapses from a severe asthma attack and is handed a Key, a powerful magical artefact, by the titular Mister Monday, one of the Will’s trustees. Monday expects Arthur to die pretty much immediately, so he can then reclaim the Key while also having technically fulfilled the terms of the Will; but, thanks to the Will’s own intervention, Arthur survives, and enters the vast interdimensional House to which Monday and the other trustees belong in search of a cure for a plague that is threatening his hometown.
The House as we encounter it in Mister Monday (it takes different forms as the series goes on) is steampunk in aesthetic and bafflingly bureaucratic. There are thousands of ranks, with House denizens taking centuries to work their way up from some lowly position to a slightly higher one; there’s a decade-long queue to get an audience with Mister Monday; pretty much everyone is operating under arcane laws and restrictions that neither Arthur nor the reader have any hope of interpreting. In one scene we see a street full of people rushing about moving written documents for no reason that is ever explained (at least in this novel). It all strongly resembles a child’s idea of what an office looks like: a rigid Victorian hierarchy, uncomfortable and unfamiliar clothes, an impenetrable system of rules and regulations, an apparently arbitrary obsession with paperwork. In other words, the House appears to make little sense because office norms make little sense to children.
Which makes it significant that Nix’s child protagonist must eventually successfully navigate the House – both in order to stop the plague in our world and because Mister Monday’s actions have made him heir to the House and its environs. It’s notable that Arthur’s success in the House – which involves defeating and dethroning Mister Monday, and taking his place – directly enables his success in undoing the effects of the plague: having navigated the topsy-turvy adult world of the House, he’s able to take his first steps towards independent agency, and thus adulthood, in our world. In a particularly neat touch, both Arthur’s (deceased) birth parents and his adoptive mother Emily were instrumental in devising a cure for a flu epidemic a decade or so before the time in which the novel takes place; in effecting the cure for this new plague, Arthur is taking on his parents’ mantle, in another symbolic step towards adulthood.
So, in Mister Monday, Garth Nix is using portal fantasy to explore childhood anxieties about adulthood and agency, by having his young protagonist gain power over a distorted, fun-house version of an adult workplace – thus rendering the things that seem arbitrary about adult life more legible and therefore less sinister. Children’s literature is traditionally geared towards helping the implied child-reader become good members of the adult social order, and Mister Monday is no exception: Arthur may be a long way off true adulthood yet, but by the end of the novel he’s taken a significant step in its direction.