Many, if not most, ghost stories turn out to be family affairs, but few extend to the house and garden as well. Tiffany Angus’s novel, Threading the Labyrinth, explores the context of family history by examining the ghosts a family leaves behind in the garden of a grand estate in Hertfordshire. The ghosts appear to many family members, gardeners, and house servants, but find true empathy in Toni, an American cousin, who inherits the house after the previous family scion’s death—and must decide its future. Unlike most ghost stories, which use the past as a springboard for violence or revenge, the ghosts here provide a much more optimistic afterlife that generates an existence for each spirit parallel to its former life in the world of the living. Once outcasts living at the house have discovered this alternate world, they find themselves tempted to dwell in it, rather than in the one where they feel they have no place.
Toni calls the estate the Remains, as though it were a corpse, but in any ghost story the line between the living and the dead blurs, especially in the estate’s walled garden. The estate’s name provides the first sign of a continuity between living and dead since: the walled garden still has vegetables and flowers growing within it. It contains faeries as well as plants and these living creatures animate it to the point where it’s far more of a main character than Toni herself. The garden attracts not only gardeners and servants, but Land Girls during World War II, and landscape painters whenever the Lord or Lady gets the notion. These characters largely seek the soul of the estate, whether they are looking for direction in life (mostly the servants) or trying to find out what drives the beings, both supernatural and human, that live there (as the artists seem to do). Everyone defaults to the garden rather than the house, as though humankind were secondary, and over the centuries the Lords and Ladies who live on the estate little more than hover in the background.
The wide variety of characters who find themselves entranced by the garden offer a glimpse of the beauty of nature, but also a subjective appreciation of the importance of the individual. Each of them exists as a product of their own time and the garden chooses to show them ghostly visions that affect them personally. Joan, a weeding woman, sees a baby in the garden as she fears for her own son’s life. Lauren, an appraiser for a local historical society, sees a downed German fighter plane from the Second World War (her father built models of historic airplanes). Both a birth and a plane crash did happen on the estate, but the garden performs these events outside of their own timeline because it recognizes a connecting interest in these particular women. Perhaps because Toni is the final branch in the family tree, the garden chooses her to tell its stories more completely, and inspires her in an obsessive way that almost seems like a possession. Toni has a life in America, albeit one she considers a failure, but she abandons it to move into the Remains, and moving from New Mexico to Hertfordshire is not a minor life change. Toni pieces together the stories of the garden through traditional research but also through the garden itself, which occasionally leaves her documents like photos, papers, or a leather case filled with clues.
The garden seems to have the ability to drop materials from the past to the present but not to communicate in a suspenseful or logical way. Nor, apparently, does it possess the ability to vary the kind of story it tells. This is frustrating because a hundreds-years-old garden could potentially have fascinating tales to tell but time and time after the Remains chooses to discuss lonely, dreamy individuals who are inevitably bullied by someone else on the estate. Stranger still, Toni mentions no experience with bullying or any kind of abuse that might have inspired the garden to connect and have a dialogue on this particular level. Toni was brought to England because she inherited the estate—and wished to sell it because her art gallery in Santa Fe was otherwise going to close. Toni’s business failures come as a result of poor personal decisions, but the garden interacts with her precisely in the way it has with people in the past: that is, to give them shelter from an abusive situation beyond their control. This consistency ceases to make sense with Toni, and without that thematic unity the novel’s stories begin to seem only a very partial history. For example, two of the garden’s stories, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, relate how the Lord of the estate hired an inexperienced head gardener, passing over a more capable employee. History may be full of patterns, but choosing to tell two such similar stories set only a hundred years apart seems like a deliberate choice that Toni ignores.
This is not the only gap in the relationship between the ghosts and their amanuensis. Toni sees ghosts, but they are not frightening or horrifying ones, and the idea that any of them might be harmful never crosses Toni’s mind. Instead, she finds these ghosts in the garden near the Remains and spends a night conversing with them, but in the morning cannot clearly remember the encounter. She never clears up the specifics of that night and consequently the opportunity for a fascinating intersection between past and present is also wasted. This is mirrored in how the stories are told: the garden’s tales alternate with Toni’s own narrative, but when Toni compiles the garden’s stories she does so in a nonlinear fashion. This ambiguity of timeline—along with the generally dreamy prose, the garden location, and that word “labyrinth” in the title—combine to evoke magical realism in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges. But the novel seems to forget that “The Garden of Forking Paths” is also a spy story—because the stories Toni tells have little suspense.
Instead, the plot of the narrative that is weaved together by Toni and the garden merely resembles a string of important family events. In this chronicle, the garden begins where all families do, with sex. While never crudely or explicitly depicted, the garden provides a setting for a bacchanal set up by the Lord and Lady, during which the Lady of the house has a dalliance with an outcast gardener pining for both his brother’s wife and title of head gardener. The next narrative involves a servant trying desperately to save her baby as her husband competes with a charlatan, again, for the head gardener job. During the World War II segment, the garden deals with the loss of innocent life due to tragedy, when two women are killed the night a Nazi fighter plane crashes into the house. Finally, in the nineteenth century, a young servant must deal with her crush on an artist who is obsessed with using her as a model. This last narrative inspires Toni, an art dealer, to renovate the house and turn it into an artistic commune. While this final lunge resolves Toni’s dilemma of whether to sell the house or not, it offers another abrupt interruption to what is, in the main, a meditation on loneliness and individuality. Blending together the stories of lonely people living at the edge of a garden full of questions suggests an artificiality to the idea of family, but ignores the closeness that actually exists between family members. The novel seems to declare a kind of community among lonely people, including Toni and her arms-length love interest Lauren, whom Toni decides will become part of the garden’s family.
By choosing individualistic Toni, with nothing to lose and little connections to hold her down, the garden gets what it must want: people to tend it. Toni’s Ameircanness might be an inconvenience, since it is specimens native to Hertfordshire which grow best within the garden’s walls, but her artistic individualism proves too tempting to pass up. Like a gardener collecting cuttings, the graden preserves people—as ghosts. But generally the details left out for the sake of trudging onward with the ghosts’ narrative are missed opportunities to make something coherent out of this process, or out of the garden’s relationship with Toni. For example, a faerie appears in the garden a few times, but it is never made clear whether the garden created the faerie or if the faerie causes the garden’s magic or how many characters even see it. Rather than dwelling on these details, Toni and the garden instead choose to to link together the history of the estate through the stories of the ghosts that now haunt it. But the frame narrative contains so many unanswered questions that it wanders around the main conflict of these tales rather than pursuing a clear quest. Sometimes even the leaps that connect ghost to ghost are not apparent at first, even where the garden seems to be arguing for a primal connection between all members of a family—no matter how distant.
While the title promises a labyrinth, Toni hardly offers an easy thread to guide the reader through it. The stories and characters who dwell in this garden love ambiguity but over-indulge in it as the outside world literally crashes down upon them. Threading the Labyrinth offers one family’s silhouette cast against the grand drama of history, but history proves too dominant—and far more interesting than the individuals presented. As the garden captures lonely outcasts within a refuge in their own minds, it only asks that they sacrifice real interaction with the world; but the grand estate’s perpetual ruin should serve as a warning against too much introspection.