I’m at the stage of the stay-at-home order where I’m craving beauty but am too tired to do the gardening or art that I want to — homeschooling special needs 6 year-old twins is really, really hard, and God bless my 9 year-old for being remarkably fuss-free. So for these difficult times, a novel like Tiffani Angus’ Threading The Labyrinth is the perfect balm. Featuring the beauty of gardens and art without skimping on what exhausting, difficult work they can be to create and maintain, it’s a terrific reminder that life isn’t just picture-perfect social media posts, that the things we appreciate take effort and time to bring into being. Almost without saying so, it’s a reminder for us all to be a little kinder to ourselves if we’re not perfect in our aspirations for love or beauty, because time is the great leveler.
And time, as much as gardens and art, is the central concern of this ghost story that travels between several distinct eras to tell us a multi-layered tale of inheritance and belonging. In 2010, American art curator Toni has discovered that she’s been entailed The Remains, as she’ll call it, of an English estate. The manor house is a crumbling ruin, but something about the walled garden calls to her. Almost four score years earlier, an actress named Irene will join the Land Girls, and come work that same garden to help prepare food for the war effort. An almost equal time before that, a young Victorian woman will inherit her aunt’s talent and equipment for the newfound art of photography, even as she’s asked to pose for the paintings of an artist coming to a crossroads in his career. And then there are segments following the American Revolutionary War, and even earlier, stretching back through time for a wide-ranging, loving look at the history of England and how it all comes together in this one secret, beautiful place.
As far as speculative fiction goes, this is definitely on the gentler side, with scares coming less from the supernatural aspects of the narrative than from the very ordinary human malice that challenges our heroines and heroes as they struggle to preserve the garden and its stories. That said, nature is creepy and will kill you without a second thought, so the thing with the vines totally freaked me out. I also enjoyed Dr Angus’ quiet criticism of the mores that stifled women throughout the centuries, as well as the sex-positivity on display. Her writing is beautifully evocative of a beloved England, and while I enjoyed the acknowledgments of that country’s colonial legacy, it was easy to tell — in perhaps my only criticism of this book — that Toni was written by someone not-American.
Threading The Labyrinth is at once a romance of England and a gorgeously layered story of ghosts through the centuries. It is a remarkable debut novel from an author whose work I look forward to reading more of.