The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, (2021). In December, 2021, it was also announced as the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction. These awards are well-deserved. It’s one of the best books I’ve read for a long time. The Labyrinth tells the story of loss and grief experienced by a middle-aged woman, as well as her path to recovery. Beautifully written, the novel is haunting, poetic and deeply moving.
Lohrey’s seventh novel also sent me on a journey to discover more about labyrinths.
Erica Marsden and her younger brother, Axel, grew up within the grounds of an asylum, ‘a manicured madhouse,’ where her father worked as the Chief Medical Officer. At the beginning of the novel, Erica returns to the asylum, now a tourist site.
In spite of the miserable setting, she remembers with fondness her younger brother, Axel, and her childhood . She recalls the way their mother abandoned her family. Axel and Erica are now estranged. Their relationship forms an important thread within The Labryinth.
At the old institution, Erica tries to find the labyrinth in the grounds where she and Axel played. She recalls their games among the stone paths and the ways in which they created arbitrary rules. She finds that the structure had recently been torn up, described as ‘overgrown and good for nothing’.
When she asks if she can buy the bricks, the owner of the on site cafe says ‘No’. He already bought the ‘lovely colonial bricks, orange ones handmade by convicts’.
‘They’ll make a nice pizza oven,’ he says.
Before the story begins, Erica’s artist son, Daniel, received a life sentence for an inadvertent yet horrendous crime. Erica buys a derelict house in an isolated beach-side community at Garra Nulla,* close to the prison where the young man serves his sentence. He asks her to burn his many books, and Erica agrees. She plans to burn them one at a time.
Following an intense dream, Erica decides she must build her own labyrinth. She chooses a space for it on the sandy land near the shack and decides it must look natural and fit into the landscape. The relationships she builds with the community revolve around the construction of the labyrinth.
Structure of The Labyrinth
The novel, written in two parts, can be seen as reflecting the structure of a labyrinth.
Labyrinths are constructed paths which meander towards a centre and back out. People use them for walking meditation, for personal, psychological and spiritual growth . In other words, a labyrinth represents a path to our own centre.
The Labyrinth reads, on one level, as a simple story, but it takes the reader on a complex journey. Erica’s path twists and turns, with complicated relationships and tangled situations. In the first half, she meditates on her life and her new community begins to accept her. She uses her computer to research and plan the design of the construction she wants to build.
At the centre of her labyrinth, she recognises the urgency of her quest. She recognises that unless she begins, she may soon become stuck.
‘I must find a way to begin soon. If I lapse into apathy I will lose the blessed sense of spaciousness…’ she muses. ‘[And] … that sandy stretch of land outside my door will remain just that: a windswept wasteland.
In the second part of the novel, Erica completes her metaphorical journey to the outside and a new path.
She meets Jerko, a stonemason who wants work. He has been camping near the community, a so-called illegal immigrant, and picking up work wherever he can. Together they plan Erica’s labyrinth. Jerko understands Erica’s vision. He visualises a pathway and suggests materials that please her. They form a close relationship such as one between a mother and son. With the help of the community, they begin construction.
As this happens, Erica’s connections with the other people in her world deepen. Her relationship with Daniel shifts. Finally, she initiates a phone conversation with her brother, Axel.
More about The Labyrinth
Amanda Lohrey, one of my favourite authors, writes exquisite prose, with no word out of place.
Point of view and tense
In this novel, she writes from the first person point of view. That is, she narrates the story completely from the interior of one character, the protagonist, Erica Marsden . She also writes in the present tense, so that the effect is immediate. Descriptions, actions and speech all happen right now.
The effect of first person point of view and present tense gives the reader a sense of a meditative state, which adds to the impression of the labyrinth.
Every character plays an important role in moving the story forward. Every life stage is represented, from a young child to Erica’s 87-year-old aunt Ruth. Lohrey captures the essence of each life stage. In a few paragraphs, we learn that Ruth had been a feminist activist but now lives in suburban Sydney. As well, she demonstrates her current age and background as the author describes it.
On her small round dining table, set with a white linen cloth, there are tea cups, a plate of sandwiches and a passionfruit sponge. On the stove a chicken casserole is simmering.
With the exception of Jerko, male characters tend to treat Erica Marsden with disrespect and disdain. Her son Daniel, in the first half, demonstrates his anger with the world by acting very badly towards his mother when she visits him. A neighbour, Ray, refuses at first to speak to his new neighbour
Landscape and settings
The mental health institution of Erica’s childhood, the seaside village, the ocean and prison all come alive under the author’s hand. And so does the ramshackle cottage she buys, ‘unrenovatable’ as one of the characters calls it. We get glimpses of London and Sydney from Erica’s memories and travels.
Themes abound in this novel. The most obvious presents itself as mother love, but of course the book also deals with many other family relationships. It also presents feminism, illegal immigration and community building as themes.
Apart from the labyrinth itself, there are many other metaphors. Several dream sequences, for example, are metaphors for Erica’s life. They remind me of the ‘seven seal’ dreams in Doris Lessing’s Summer Before the Dark, which also has as its protagonist a middle-aged woman.
I have written more about labyrinths in a blog post here.
Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth would please many different readers. It would also make a splendid book club choice. Although complex and rich in meaning, it also reads as a simple, character-driven novel. There is much to question and to admire in this book.
*Garra Nulla is also the imaginary setting of another of Lohrey’s highly-recommended novels, Vertigo.
Australian Women Writers Challenge
This review forms part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2021.
Here are links to several other of my reviews:
The Smokehouse, by Melissa Manning
The Good Turn, by Dervla McTiernan