Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus – Book Review
Threading the Labyrinth is an unusual work of fantasy fiction. The simplest handle on it might be to say that it is like a grown-up development Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, a book from my own childhood about a boy who finds that when the clock strikes thirteen rather than midnight he can pass from the dull 1950s experience of an old house into its glorious heyday at the end of the Victorian era and discover new friends and adventures. But that single glib parallel does not do justice to Tiffani Angus’s novel.
The book begins in a framing story set in 2010 where Toni Hammond – a financially troubled New Mexico Art gallery owner – discovers she has inherited a near-derelict English country house and the associated gardens. On visiting her new property she stumbles into the remains of a walled garden and the book then alternates between different periods in the past and Toni’s present as she tries to understand her own links to the house and decide what she will do with it.
The past episodes are each long portions of the story, the book dotting back and forth along the four hundred year timeline of the garden’s existence. Each episode is a story in its own right told in differing points of view – some first person, some third person – and styles. But all share a common root in the walled garden – and the haunting goings-on that reach from the past into 2010 to unsettle the ruthlessly American new owner.
In the last couple of years, I have discovered whisky and I am enjoying sampling the wide variety within that single spirit. I particularly like the rich textured flavour of my latest favourite single malt* – a recent recommendation from a couple of friends – although I don’t have quite the subtlety of taste and smell to pick out all the individual detail of “sultanas, stewed plums, waves of BBQ spices, peat smoke, sea salt and citrus sweetness” that are apparently in the palate. However, reading Threading the Labryrinth often put me in mind of a fine complex whisky as it kept triggering different associations with books and history and gardens. The threads of the story are not so much woven or even entangled as organically entwined through the strange magic of the walled garden in the grounds of an old house named “The Remains.”
Besides Tom’s Midnight Garden there is another childhood book that resonates with Threading The Labyrinth. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden highlights the fascination of a secret place and the emotional investment that grieving adults and bratty children can make in a walled garden, open to the heavens yet still an intimate private space in which to discover friendship, health and happiness.
I was also reminded of Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd about a ghostly guide flying beside an RAF pilot lost over the sea a few years after the Second World War. Or Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, who finds her past, present, and future husband flickering in and out of her own more conventionally unidirectional timeline.
When a gardener argues with an artist:
“This,” he has said, and pointed to the red and yellow and green swirls and lines made from hundreds of hothouse begonias and geraniums and pot marigolds, “is also art,”
I found myself thinking of a documentary on a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, of how his work was not so much bodybuilding, as body sculpting, devising exercises to build individual muscles into the shapes he wanted. Art comes in many forms and gardening – the sculpting of creation – is no less creative than any other.
There are shades of Poldark in the returning army veteran and the women he loved and left. Of Mary Poppins, or perhaps David Copperfield, in the eccentric aunt bequeathing her love of photography to a precocious niece – and reminding me of long ago science lessons getting students to develop their pinhole camera photographs in a miniature darkroom made out of a cardboard box. The book itself references the Cottingley Fairies – another gardens and photographs fantasy, and finally, in the way the book condenses centuries of experience into a single lived moment Threading the Labyrinth reminded me of the closing paragraphs of A.G.McDonnell’s England, Their England.
While each element of the past is a complete and satisfying story of its own, the spine that connects the myriad subplots and characters is the walled garden – a character in its own right.
As Angus observes,
Gardens are not rooms inside houses, though. You cannot fill a garden, even a small one, with your presence: it is always bigger. And Vale’s attempt fell short.
Those gifted – or cursed – with an affinity for its unstated magic are haunted by images or sounds from other times even as they try to navigate their own troubles. The garden’s past and future seduces and inhabits the gardeners as much as some of them might wish to seduce each other. Some people appear; others disappear; the same abandoned child cries in many different centuries, but grows up in only one.
Working in a garden was hypnotising.
Reading Threading the Labyrinth, like working in the garden at its heart, is a hypnotic experience, drawing you in as the layered and overlaid stories bleed into each other.
There are many lovely descriptions of the garden that leap out of the page as though you can almost smell the scent of the flowers:
A stone mermaid, softened with green lichen.
Stamens and pistils, violently yellow with pollen.
…flowers orange and yellow, small coins of colour in a fading year.
The characters and periods are equally faithfully represented in differentiated descriptions of clothing, character, and dialogue. There are lines of that wickedly capture the tone of the particular times, such as this biting rebuke from the lord of the house to his wife with whom he has been gambling before an audience.
Her husband spoke slowly, relishing the effect his words would have. “Your purse is empty.” A few ladies gasped at the cruelty. A few others tittered at his wit. Her Ladyship’s barrenness was a well-known secret.
The wealth of knowledge and research forms the rich and fertile soil in which Tiffani Angus has planted her mysteries. The reader can find comforting reassurance in the details of gardening practice through the ages. It is also a salutary reminder of the scale of servitude that was required to maintain an English Country house. We may have seen the array of indoor servants in Downton Abbey, or Upstairs Downstairs, but Threading The Labyrinth reminds us that it took an army of gardeners to maintain these large estates, all deployed in specialised hierarchies beneath the command of a head gardener.
The account of Victorian photography was also vividly rendered. In the days of smartphones and instant selfies, we forget how laborious a process photography once was, cumbersome equipment and poses carefully held for long exposures.
It is the final past story of the amateur photographer in Victorian times that I found most fittingly brought Threading the Labyrinth into full bloom as artists and would-be photographers trade lines and thoughts like these:
To capture a moment in time and hold it forever was magic.
Photography was forever.
Art is about finding something new in the world you look at every day.
It felt to me then as though the ghostly thoughts of the author were appearing in the background of the thoughts of the characters, for Threading The Labyrinth is about the magic of capturing and experiencing many moments in time and holding them all together in a single superimposed instant.
In the same way that Einstein took the simplicity of his theory of Special Relativity forward into the all-encompassing majesty of General Relativity, Tiffani Angus’s Threading the Labyrinth takes the magic of those childhood books I already loved, and transforms it into something infinitely more complex, enthralling and fascinating.
*(Kilchoman – Loch Gorm, since you ask)
Editorial: If you’d like to read the Hive’s Author Spotlight for Tiffani Angus as part of our #WomenInSFF July feature, click here.