Review of Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus

There are many labyrinths in this beguiling and original fantasy novel, from the elaborate, confusing collection of gardens around a country mansion in Hertfordshire to the insane complexities of the English class system. Time itself is a maze, with narratives set at different periods nestling like Russian dolls, while characters and images reflect each other, hall of mirrors style. This description might make the novel seem difficult, but it’s not. Like walking around the enigmatic walled garden that centres the tale, Threading the Labyrinth is a fascinating but often pleasurably alarming journey.
Everyone has a secret, a walled garden of their own, but social conditioning – particularly repression of gender and sexuality – prevents them from sharing these treasures and discovering how much they have in common. Fathers, husbands and older brothers frequently ignore the canny sight of daughters or wives, but ultimately fail to control anything, as riotous nature finds a way to exist on its own terms.
Winter does away with the frivolous plantings of lords and ladies, while the temporal microclimate of the walled garden subverts seasonal change. Roses and strawberries grow when they should not, injuries heal, and children appear out of nowhere. Changelings abound – from young Thomas returning wounded from the American War of Independence to the experience of Toni, the novel’s 21st century narrator, an American woman who is left the English country mansion by a relative she never knew she had.
Toni runs an art gallery, and the novel explores the effects of nature and humanity on each other through the thread of creativity. The travails of a painter haunted by Bacchanalian raptures in the other-worldly walled garden reflect the attempts of the woman he is spying on to capture them with one of the earliest cameras. In this way, generational images are layered over each other, while the walled garden superimposes ghostly memories, plantings and figures as it spreads its oneiric influence through history.
The wall has become a fraught symbol recently, and folklore too is susceptible to racist idiot reductionist thinking, but the novel’s depiction of the haunting extremes at the heart of a true national identity is one of its most powerful aspects. Another is the wide range of relationships touched by the uncanny, and the way they resonate across time. A secret affair between two Land Girls reflects the burgeoning romance between Toni and Laura, whose organisation seeks to save the precious garden from the bull-headed monster of twenty-first century capitalism.
Throughout, the folkloric need to preserve while evolving lends the novel a desperate tension. It’s relieved by the regenerative power of natural forces, particularly when channelled through enlightened human effort. Tending the garden is hard – a life’s work in many cases. There is no time for falsehood or vanity.
Nothing is fixed and even modern technology cannot be relied upon – the spectre of a crashed German fighter plane sometimes appears in photographs, and sometimes does not. A man in a green coat recurs in life, painting and dream, known to all even though nobody sees his face. Both phantom and mentor, he is at once frightening yet familiar.
The author deftly uses these techniques to weave stories of social drama, time travel and horror into convincing portraits that challenge societal norms in the same manner as the walled garden challenges assumptions about reality. The novel works so well because it is clearly grounded in the kind of research that ensures the reader trusts the story completely. That in turn allows a powerful gathering of emotion that makes the ending, with its suggestion that even our own supposedly advanced era will one day be just another layer in the eternal garden, both subtle and intensely moving.

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