Unsung Stories, 13 July 2020
Available as: PB, 353pp, e
Source: Advance PB kindly supplied free by the publisher
I'm grateful to Unsung Stories for an advance copy of Threading the Labyrinth.
The premise of Threading the Labyrinth is simple. Toni Hammond, who owns a struggling gallery in Santa Fe, is surprised to inherit a crumbling manor house and overgrown garden in Hertfordshire, England. Investigating - might there be some money here that can rescue her business? - she finds no cash, but rather that the place holds impressions of many stories taking place over hundreds of years. It's hard for her to understand what's going on, but a link is forming with the history of the place...
One of my favourite stories by the celebrated ghost story writer MR James involves the inheritance of a house with a spooky old labyrinth in the garden and a mystery at its heart. A nice ghost story but as it's mostly about the unfortunate heir's attempts to survive, we learn little about the house of maze themselves. That is a story of terror, but in Threading the Labyrinth, though, Tiffani Angus turns things inside out and sites an elusive sense of love and belonging in her garden. Given only a scant set of family papers and with limited time before she must make a sale and return home, Toni is nevertheless drawn to uncover layers of her family's, and England's, past. We learn a great deal about the history of the place and about its people.
The story reaches back beyond the Reformation into local legend, when the nuns who originally lived in the house Toni labels "The Remains" thought they heard an abandoned baby crying in their garden. A baby they could never find. Dotting forward and back through later centuries, we meet the families who lived in the house and worked the gardens. Refreshingly, this is a bottom up perspective: the characters most strongly drawn are the gardeners and estate workers, not the gentry. There is a real sense of the endless, backbreaking labour needed to maintain the garden (the "weeders" are always women, even if the "gardeners" are men). English history is given in miniature and localised - while there are mentions of kings and wars (and men go off to fight in the wars, and sometimes come back) the detail, the important stuff, is what's happening "here".
So we see the people being turned off their land and their village relocated because His Lordship wants a pretty view (and more income). (Next time you visit a splendid National Trust property, ask if there are humps and bumps nearby where the old village used to be). We see struggle within families for a coveted place working the garden, with ignorant outsiders sometimes preferred over local people. We witness the profusion of new seeds and cuttings that exploration and colonialism open up (and can imagine the sources of wealth in the colonies that support the whole enterprise).
Always, the gardens abide, changing while staying same, with a particular walled garden the focus of things. A recurring figure links events and characters centuries apart - a soldier returning from the American war to find his sweetheart married to his brother, a Victorian artist struggling to make his mark, a group of Land Girls digging for victory in the Second World War. There are stories of people going missing, of children appearing out of nowhere. Angus's narrative touches on moments of great peril and loss as well as on moments of tenderness and love.
It's an outsider's view of English history. Angus's characters are, for the most part humble and generally women; the poor, strangers without a family, Victorian Aunt Madeline who makes her eccentric living from her camera, Irene who comes from London to work the land and mourns a terrible loss. Above all, while she has a family connection, Toni herself is an outsider, learning what Downton Abbey glossed over or ignored.
We are given fragments of their stories - sometimes we know how things turned out in the end, sometimes we don't. Some are linked (if only through a family name), others are separate - decades or centuries pass without a glimpse; though at times it's possible to conjecture what was happening, in other places there is a lot of detail. It's a scented, heady paradise of a book, rambling wild in places and with lots to discover in hidden corners. The language is lush, gorgeous, whether in simple phrases such as 'purse rummage', in the sheer smelliness of everything (the perfume of wet earth, the past as a smell not a sight, a kiss - 'And her mouth on him was as warm as a heavy lily under the summer sun. And she tasted how sugar smelled') or in the feeling of the light, with colours and smells often overlapping. Tragedy and loss are close to the surface - the young men who never came back from the Great War, the anxious scanning of the sky, even out here in the country, for enemy planes - but are never the end, just as the damaged, boarded up, forsaken house of The Remains seems poised to allow new things, to embrace change, and to celebrate the lives lived within its shadow.
The book called to me. I am married to a vicar, meaning we move around from one parish to another (one house to another) with no expectation of staying anywhere too long. So I am very familiar with adopting a garden and I've come to recognise the particular nature of the vicarage garden: overgrown, half-finished projects, unweeded borders choked with shrubs, glorious surprises left by one's predecessors. Every garden is a palimpsest. In Threading the Labyrinth we see how that complexity arises, both through loving labour and careless, even violent change at the whim of national history, economics and dynastic fluctuations.
Threading the Labyrinth is a glorious read, a book, perhaps, for the summer, to be read by an open window or sitting in the wilder parts of one's garden - or perhaps in the park, if no garden is available. I'd strongly recommend it.
For more information about Threading the Labyrinth, see the publisher's website here.