Amanda Lohrey’s 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award winning novel invites us to meander alongside Erica Marsden as she unravels the past and is pulled towards an unknown future. ‘The Labyrinth’ is beautifully written. Our author is exacting as she paves the way for readers on this brooding spiral.
Erica can’t sleep. She is not working, nor in a relationship and doesn’t see friends or family. She is incapacitated by grief following her son’s imprisonment for negligible homicide. Exhausted by her anguish for his victims and her own sense of loss she slips into multivalent and hallucinatory dreams. One such vision sparks an obsession with the labyrinth.
Hanging on to this idea as prescient, Erica leaves Sydney for the coast. She settles in a beachside shack cobbled together from recycled and mismatched parts. It’s refuge for her two-fold mission; visit her incarcerated son and build a labyrinth.
At night she adds to a folio of labyrinth images trawled from the internet, glass of wine in hand. Sitting here in the dark she feels a drive to make and explores the meaning behind her symbol, desire and the significance of its materiality, much like an artist would. She contemplates how some labyrinth designs can be reminiscent of a womb and ponders the history of its incarnation to support meditative thought.
It’s not clear if she wants change, but she seems to see potential in making as medicine. As a girl she played on a labyrinth at the asylum she called home, where her Father was a psychiatrist. He would extol the virtue of working with your hands, ‘when you make something you become a rivet in the fabric of the real.’
Art is considered as both destructive and restorative in the novel, her son’s wreckage was against a backdrop of creativity, but art will later be a salve to him. And, as Erica moves feeling to form she is closer to reconnecting with life.
Our protagonist has no schedule and in her solitude rides out haunting dreams, visits her son whose rage is close to the surface and ruminates on grim relationships with her Father, absent Mother, estranged brother, a past love, and her role as a parent. Over the course of the novel we are introduced to a host of characters who slowly inch toward Erica’s inner world, they are also all working through or marked by grief, from death of a loved one, displacement, crippling mental health issues, self-harm and neglect. They come together in one way or another to contribute to the construction of the labyrinth, and through creativity and building comes the onset of healing.
‘Kairos’, Erica contemplates, ‘meaning not time, but timeliness…in this place the past will be dead and the future a mirage. And when the opening appears it must be passed through without hesitation.’