Review: The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

This Miles Franklin-winning novel starts strongly. An older woman, Erica Marsden, revisits her childhood home, an asylum in regional Australia, which has been turned into a tourist trap. It was here in the gardens that her father Ken, the chief medical officer, was murdered by patient with a scythe when she was 18. Ten years earlier her mother Irene had run away after Ken granted a garden plot to a man who’d blended his wife. She later died when her car was swept off a road in a flood. These lurid, violent details are passed over quickly, and the asylum is never revisited. More importantly for Erica is the labyrinth in the courtyard she remembers from her childhood, although this has since been removed.

It turns out Erica has left the city in pursuit of a dream that told her to build a labyrinth. She settles in the fictional coastal community of Garra Nalla. Her adult son Daniel is up the road in a fancy new prison, serving life for “homicidal negligence” after burning down his art studio in a fit of creative angst and heartbreak. In the community, she begrudgingly makes connections, particularly with Jurko, a Balkan prodigal son and stone mason without a visa, who will be able to help build her labyrinth and speaks in a cinematically thick Slavic accent. She is following her father’s Jungian mantra that “the cure for many ills is to make something”. Erica is a woman who’s sealed herself up against heartache, which seems fair given that she’s carrying around more than most, and she is a prickly character impatient with those who would pry into her trauma. It’s a grim, aching study of women’s guilt and men’s hatred. There are some puzzling moments, such as when Erica overhears what sounds like a local woman being assaulted by two men. They’re always like that, says a neighbour, and Erica simply turns away, never to revisit the incident, perhaps an indication of her detachment, or simply another brushstroke painting in the novel’s undercurrent of violence.

The problem for me is the labyrinth of the title. Labyrinths are interesting. The word comes from the Greek for an axe said to be wielded by Amazon warriors; Erica is drawn to the idea of the labyrinth as representing the womb. There is indeed a Minotaur at this story’s heart, but he remains elusive and shadowy. I was intrigued by the idea of the labyrinth as a physical expression of living in the moment, although later Erica is quite dismissive of a “healing labyrinth” created by a katan-wearing wellness advocate. Erica’s obsession also seems a metaphor for creativity or the writing process:

That night I am restless. I sit at my laptop and wonder if I am really ready to begin. It would be easy to remain in this fugue state of apathy, to have always an idea, a half-formed plan that never materialises. The material world is too intractable.

In fact so much does it seem labyrinths can mean that this one threatens to spiral apart. The narrative also suffers from the treatment of the construction, which unfolds a bit too much like a manual. Some of it might have better suited essay or poetry.

More intriguing to me is the novel’s setting, which is a kind of anyplace regional Australia, haunted by the spectres of colonisation and omens of the climate-changed future. With its convict bricks, copperheads in the grass and the spuds and sheep, it felt to me like eastern Tasmania, even though it is described as only a couple of hour’s drive from Sydney. There’s an old whaling station nearby, the prison sits in an old coal-mining valley, the locals are sickened by the new wind farms. Drought, fire, flood and unseasonal storms batter the region. Lohrey effectively conveys the solastalgia induced by environmental change, a term that was coined to describe places exactly like this. Subtitled “a pastoral”, it also reminded me of Evelyn Araluen’s unsettling investigation into Australiana in her recent poetry collection. At its best Lohrey evokes a kind of Homeric chill, like the Greeks on the beach at Troy:

It’s a long drive home through the Napier Valley. The prison complex looks ghostly in the dusk, its tall lights incandescent above steel mesh and barbed wire. Further on, in the grazing paddocks, a line of bonfires has been lit from dead and dried-out blue gums. Bulldozed into piles they flicker now in glowing mounds of flame. All night they will burn like ritual pyres until nothing is left but a thick carpet of ash.

But despite some compelling writing and ideas, and evocative setting, I failed to become invested in this inward-spiraling novel.

Gay rating: 1/5 for a peripheral queer criminal.

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