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The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey review – a meditative and sprawling novel to lose yourself in | Australian books


In the midst of a self-described “fugue” state, Erica Marsden buys a half-forgotten windswept shack along the south coast of New South Wales. She moves to be closer to her son, who is incarcerated in a nearby prison, and to undertake a project that has captured her imagination almost to the point of obsession.

Driven by a dream and childhood memories, Erica sets out to build a stone labyrinth in the sandy earth behind the shack. As she explores the design and history of the labyrinth, Erica remakes and reimagines herself and the lives of those around her.

The Labyrinth is a deeply meditative book: the eighth novel from Tasmanian novelist Amanda Lohrey, whose previous works – including A Short History of Richard Kline, Reading Madame Bovary and Camille’s Bread – have been widely acclaimed.

Her latest is ideal for the meandering uncertainties of 2020. The characters who wander the pages are searching for meaning beyond the various trappings of their lives. Although Erica’s story is at the core of the novel, she is surrounded by people who are equally unsettled. To call them lost would be a misstep though:

The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart are you), the labyrinth to the heart (will you surrender). In the maze you grapple with the challenge but in the labyrinth you let go. Effortlessly you come back to where you started, somehow changed by the act of surrender.

The novel captures these acts of surrender, as the labyrinth weaves its way around the lives of everyone nearby. Garra Nulla, a hamlet with only a hundred or so dwellings and no shop, pub, or anything that might mark it as a town, fosters the intimacies and connections between characters who might otherwise be left to the periphery. The remote setting allows their lives to intersect and overlap in the way that busier cities often don’t.

The structure of the labyrinth also provides definition to the narrative, which might otherwise find itself lost in memories of the past. As the story itself follows the winding paths of memory, the act of conceiving of and building the labyrinth grounds Erica, and the narrative, in the present. Erica reflects on her relationship with her father, and her experience of motherhood – both unsettling – and while neither strand reaches a finite resolution, there is a peace in the physical act of construction. She frequently returns to the echo of her father, who “believed in the mind as a divine engineering project designed for the invention and use of tools. Homo faber: man the maker. The use of the hands is a powerful medicine, he would say.”

And while she is unable to reconcile her relationships with her father and son, in creating and constructing the labyrinth she draws people to her: Lexie, who wants to leave the trappings of the hamlet to start a life in the city; Ray, a brooding miser trapped in his own torment; and Jurko, an illegal immigrant running from the memory of an unhappy childhood.

Each are lured to the project for their own reasons, although Lohrey avoids the sentimentality of allowing their shared goal to spring unlikely (and unbelievable) friendships. Instead their paths intersect in solitude – there are brief moments of connection and recognition, but ultimately each traipses the sandy pathways alone.

Lohrey, a deft and poetic writer, was awarded the Patrick White literary award in 2012. Her writing here is beautifully layered, rich in imagery and meaning, without ever being laboured. The themes of isolation and incarceration are reinforced in the various locations of the novel, which range from the large echoing mansion in which Erica raised her son, to the dry sheep paddocks and grassy headland of Garra Nalla. These places of relatively peaceful solitude are juxtaposed with the prison, where everything is “steel and concrete; even the air has a metallic taste”. Erica’s interactions with her son, Daniel, are similarly disruptive, the crude coldness of his rage towards her disrupting the maternal comfort that threatens to stereotype her.

The Labyrinth offers a pull towards the unknown and a comfort in solitude. It is a sharply tuned novel, a sprawling narrative that resists rigid expectations, instead allowing those who inhabit the pages to surrender themselves to the mode of “reversible destiny” that it is constructed around. Despite sometimes eerie loneliness, the book is quietly compelling, a carefully planned reflection on the many ways that we might retrace and remake ourselves and our relationships.

• The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey is out now through Text Publishing

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