We’re so busy dealing with the present that the past sometimes seems to matter not in the least. Until it does. Asher Todd, the narrator of Angela Slatter’s The Path of Thorns, arrives at Morwood Grange a day early to start her new job as governess to three children. Beyond her charges, there’s a man of the manor, Luther, and his wife, Jessamine, fellow servants, even a reclusive grandmother, Leonora. Asher is kept busy, and keeps herself busy, getting to know the lay of the land. She’s a superb storyteller, peppering her narrative with fairytales that are usually unsettling. As she settles, she allows herself to consider how she finds herself at Morwood.
By then the hooks are deeply embedded. Angela Slatter’s gothic fantasy is created with such confidence, her story is imbued with such forward momentum, that readers are swept forward without thought about anything other than turning the pages. While we read, we discover the pull of crime fiction as the rot is revealed; and not just in Morwood, and the unpleasant Luther in particular. He’s a rich bully to be sure, a type we’re all unhappily familiar with. Asher, on the other hand, presents herself as capable, smart, and willing to hide her strengths when it suits her plan. Wait, what strengths? What plan?
What indeed. In an author’s note, Slatter reveals her inspirations. Suffice it to say that I was thinking Henry James and Donald E. Westlake. How it plays out – especially, the jolting, jarring turn of the screw – is an example of the most rarefied essence of why we read. No, there’s not a big secret, so much as that point on the roller coaster where the bottom drops out.
Making this all much, much easier and more fun to read than it may have been to write are Slatter’s precisely elegant prose, her superb sense of suspense and the extensive world-building that she’s done in the many (also excellent) books she’s written before, from the first collection, Sourdough and Other Stories, to the first novel set in this world, All the Murmuring Bones. Without a doubt, The Path of Thorns stands by itself. Even the title is important, in fact unforgettable when the author puts it in context. Afterwards, you’ll likely note the powerful femininity that is the beating, bloody heart of this novel. You’ll consider your own heart, your own strengths, your plans. Waiting to be made – and re-made.
Whatever you’ve planned can wait. Angela Slatter does not just write great fiction, she teaches. You may not intend to write, but you can always learn.