‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

2020, 246 p.


I must confess that, had it not been the September selection for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle, I would not have read this book. Not even winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2021 would have tempted me. I’ve read a few of Amanda Lohrey’s books before, but after at first being beguiled into their Garnersque Melbourne settings, I have become increasingly wearied by the philosophical and spiritual baggage that she burdens her books with – most particularly in The Philosopher’s Doll (my review here) and even more so in A Short History of Richard Kline (my review here). So, eyeing off the title The Labyrinth with its sacred and meditative connotations, I was not inclined to read the book.

In its classical (as distinct from religious) origins the labyrinth was an elaborate structure built by the craftsman Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, in order to contain the monster Minotaur. The young Theseus, later to be the mythical King of Athens, had joined a group of youths and maidens slated to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. He entered the labyrinth with a ball of string which he used to keep track of his progress through the maze, killed the Minotaur, then followed the string to get out of the labyrinth again.

All this seems a long way from Garra Nalla, a small farming community on the New South Wales coast, which is close enough to the prison in Brockwood, where Erica’s only child is serving a sentence for murder. On the way up the coast she revisits her childhood home, Melton Park, a former asylum which has been converted into a tourist venue. Her father had been the chief medical officer, and she and her brother grew up ranging freely over the gardens and wards of the asylum. Her father, who had stayed on at the asylum with his two children Erica and Axel after their mother had left them, engaged the children on building a labyrinth in the gardens of the asylum, complete with the measuring and designing that such a project entailed.

The labyrinth at her childhood home had long disappeared by the time that Erica visited it, but when she moves into a ramshackle house near the ocean, after a particularly vivid dream she decides to build a labyrinth on the flat space beside her own home. She researches various designs of labyrinths (leading to more exposition than I cared for) and obsesses over the form, shape and construction of her labyrinth. She needs the expertise and muscle of others, and this leads her to befriend Jurko, former stoneworker and an undocumented migrant from the Balkans, who is sleeping rough in the national parks nearby.

If there is a monster in her labyrinth, it is her son Daniel. Always an intense child, he was an artist and art becomes the one connection she has with her son as she visits him in the stark, soul-destroying visitors’ room at the jail. He is spiky and unlikeable (although I think that, from a plot point of view, Lohrey lost courage in choosing the rather ambiguous crime that led to Daniel’s imprisonment). He is probably mentally ill, although this is not reflected in the sentence that he received. But Daniel is Erica’s punishment: she feels the guilt for his crime (even if Daniel does not); she is compelled to keep visiting him because she is the only one who does; and she is reluctant to tell other people about her son in the small seaside hamlet where she is carving out her new life.

Mental illness and loss runs through this book. Growing up in an asylum, she had much childhood exposure to mental illness, although her father taught her not to fear it, assuring her that we are all lunatics at some stage. Her mother feared it, though, and she left her husband, 10 year old Erica and her younger brother Alex after a dispute with her husband over a particularly violent inmate who had been admitted to the asylum and who, she felt, was under insufficient supervision. Although her mother died two years later, their father never told them: a rather inexplicable act by a doctor, and a source of grievance between father and children when they discovered the truth. Her mother was right: her father was killed by a patient.

Moving into adulthood Erica embarked on a series of violent, unsuitable and unsuccessful relationships, becoming homeless and camping up and down the coast at one stage with her son Daniel who, like her, mourned and kept searching for his lost parent. She feels guilt over her parenting, and when Daniel commits the crime that led to his imprisonment, she takes on herself the guilt for the innocent victims- a guilt that Daniel does not feel. Erica herself is emotionally untethered, but she is not alone. Ray, her next door neighbour, is a morose and belligerent misogynist; young Lexie who she employs rather unnecessarily to help around the house is withdrawn and ‘strange’; and self-assured neighbours turn out to have their own family crises. But, as her father said, we’re all affected by the moon.

Her father had believed in the power of making things as a form of healing. The epigraph to the book “The cure for many ills, noted Jung, is to build something”, and after her mother Irene left, her father built Erica a doll’s house in his own workshop at the back of the house

…after Irene disappeared, he made me a doll’s house with a circular staircase that I could never gaze on without a sense of the mystery of my own being. I would imagine that somewhere in the attic of the doll’s house, my mother had left behind a part of herself and that one day she would return for it.

p. 8

It’s no surprise, then, that Erica embarks upon building her labyrinth as a cure for her own sickness at heart. The project draws in other people, particularly Jurko and even the pugnacious Ray, and although it is not completed, the labyrinth acts as a healing force for Erica, and a metaphor for working one’s way through challenge. In the closing pages of the book, Erica feels that the labyrinth is her mother’s.

Much of the book is fairly quotidian: her gradual acceptance of and by her neighbours, unpacking her possessions and destroying those of her son (under his instructions) in her new home, and choosing designs and rocks for the labyrinth. But it is heavily laden with descriptions of dreams (something that Lohrey does in her other books as well) and fairly didactic information about labyrinths. She writes landscape well, and you can almost see her weather-beaten shack against the sand dunes. She captures the small scale of Garra Nulla, and explores the flawed characters of her neighbours, more visible in a small town. Lohrey’s exploration of the emotional situation of the parent of an imprisoned (adult) child is well done, without the shrillness of Lionel Shriver’s We Have to Talk about Kevin. But in spite of the things that Lohrey did well in this book, I just found the philosophizing and dream sequences stultifying and offputting. Even though obviously many other readers feel differently (including those at the Ivanhoe Reading Circle meeting) the ‘Miles Franklin Winner’ didn’t rescue this book for me.

My rating: 7/10 (It would have been lower, but the discussion nudged me higher)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Read for the September meeting of the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

3 responses to “‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

  1. I haven’t read your review past the first para or so because I am keen to read this book … I’m interested though in your dislike of her “philosophical and spiritual baggage”. Is there something particular about the way she does it?

    • I think it’s the rather laboured explanations that I bridle against. It’s strange, because I am open to spiritual searching and questioning, but I don’t seem to like it when other people think they have found it and tell me about it! I think I enjoy the search more than the discovery!

      • That’s what I thought – about your interest – RJ, which is why I was surprised, given this book’s accolades – so thanks for answering. I understand all of what you say.

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