Summary: In this compelling fantasy novel, the author of Tourists and Summer King returns to a present-day setting and a magical realist mode, in the story of a woman in San Francisco who discovers magic in her past–and her present.
Thoughts: A family secret, magical performances, and philosophy all combined in Walking the Labyrinth. Molly’s family has a dark and interesting history, one that she knows nothing of until a private investigator approaches her with a request for information about the whereabouts of a relative she’s never even heard of. Molly’s curious mind latches onto the mystery and she digs deeper into what is revealed to be a secret society in England, and its continuation in modern-day America.
Much like a labyrinth, the story has a lot of twists and turns, and it’s hard to tell sometimes just how close to the truth you really are. Molly experiences this plenty of times through the story, which does get a little tiring when it turns into a round of, “Did Fentrice do it? No, she couldn’t have, because of this thing. Oh, but then there’s this thing! Did Fentrice do it after all?” It’s a good question. Did she do what she’s being accused of? Who is telling the truth, and is it the whole truth? But the circular nature of half the arguments make it difficult to keep track of what I’m even supposed to be mentally debating at times.
As with the last work I read by Goldstein, I found the historical aspect of this novel to be quite fascinating. Everything historical was told through diaries and letters rather than through dialogue or from a character actually being there, which weirdly appeals to me. Finding out about the Order of the Labyrinth and how that turned from a secret society devoted to the supernatural and philosophy in England to a traveling magic show in America was definitely a fun journey to embark upon.
Though I could have done with a couple of characters now and again who hadn’t heard of the Order. Everyone they asked had heard about them, despite them being a secret society that’s really only mentioned in one pamphlet and a couple of family documents. Everything tied in so neatly that it stretched the bounds of credulity.
Part of the problem I had with this book, though, was the rather meandering nature of the plot. The pacing wasn’t that great, meaning that you’d spend pages and pages reading diary entries of life and family affairs in a traveling show, then BAM, major plot development with Molly’s family that has roughly the same amount of book space devoted to it. You’d get used to one pace and then suddenly it would switch, and it was never the same twice.
This could have been a wonderful way of showing that things aren’t what they seem and that life throws you curveballs all the time, a meta-commentary on the events of the story themselves, but it didn’t really come across that way. It came across, unfortunately, as just poor pacing, and I suspect my suddenly thought about it having deeper implications was just my habit of overthinking things and finding connections where there are none.
But the story itself was pretty good, and an interesting blend of the old and the new, an exploration of the psychic craze that swept England in the 1800s and a connection to the more mundane aspects of modern day. I like the ideas that Goldstein played with here, and it was really only the pacing issues that kept me from enjoying it all more.
Walking the Labyrinth is a quick read, only around 200 pages, and when the pacing is even it’s so easy to fall into the story and get caught up in everything. It’s intelligent, prompts personal reflection, and is a good exploration of someone uncovering that her family has far more to it than she ever gave thought to. Not Goldstein’s best work, but still worth reading, and it definitely stands the test of time better than many urban fantasies that I’ve read from the 1990s (the edition I read was a digital reprint rather than the original publication). Worth checking out if you like some history with your mystery!
(Received for review from the publisher.)