Let me begin in my father’s house.
A good opening line tells you a lot.
Right from the get-go we see there is a story to be told. There is a father (but not a mother) and that houses will be significant.
We start with Erica returning to her old family home – a cottage in the grounds of an asylum where her father was a psychiatrist. She is trying to find the old paved labyrinth, that she and her brother used to play on as children. The image of a labyrinth had come to her in a dream after her son had been imprisoned for murder. Suddenly labyrinths feel significant to Erica – a way to draw her past and her present together.
So begins a story that meanders through memories, explores the problems of absent parenting and retraces old steps.
Within the first fifty pages we’re also reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson story, Kidnapped, a story that began in a similar way to this one, “I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.” It’s also a story that Erica’s father read aloud to her and her brother, Axel. A story she then read aloud to her son, Daniel.
This is just one of the many ways this story spirals around itself.
The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart you are), 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 burden of guilt hangs heavy over Erica and she is looking for signs and ways to emerge from her pain.
Given that Lohrey invokes Jung in her epigraph, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of what he had to say about mothers and father and children.
For what has been spoiled by the father can only be made good by a father, just as what has been spoiled by the mother can only be repaired by a mother. The disastrous repetition of the family pattern could be described as the psychological original sin.
This disastrous repetition is at the heart of The Labyrinth.
Erica and Axel’s mother runs off when they are young. As a result, Erica spends the rest of novel trying to rediscover or reconnect with the feminine, most notably with the seed labyrinth design she settles on.
Daniel’s father runs off when he is a baby, leaving a mother/son situation that has been compared to We Need To Talk About Kevin. Erica refuses to address or engage with this kind of psychology though. Perhaps having a father who worked in this field put her off ever talking about her feelings or psychological needs ever again! The closest she comes is through labyrinths. Yet when faced with existing labyrinths, she reacts negatively to the prescribed process and finds walking them to be an almost ludicrous experience. It would appear that it is the doing or the making that is important here. The healing comes from outward action not inward musings.
…far from being known to me, my closest familiar, my son, is now an unknown. One each visit to Daniel I travel toward this unknown; I do not know what I will find when I arrive and this alone makes the pain of these confrontations bearable.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the setting.
The fictional south coast town of Garra Nalla is beautifully evoked. Part of the remit for the Miles Franklin Award is to acknowledge a novel that “presents Australian life in any of its phases”. In The Labyrinth, the tree-change/sea-change phase of retiring to a regional area to find peace, solitude and healing is clearly being explored. Erica’s retreat is fragile and dangerous. The solitude is welcome yet frightening.
The rural escape is also a place to hide for one who does not wish to be found. In this case a young man, Jurko, who has come to Australia illegally, reminding us of the ongoing conversation around Australia’s immigration policy.
This may appear to be a slight book at first glance, but Lohrey has packed a lot of ideas into a quiet space. She leaves the reader ample room to find their own way through.
The cure for many ills, noted Jung, is to build something.
- Winner 2021 Miles Franklin Prize
The placid surface of the coast suggests not resignation but waiting. Here we gaze constantly at the weather, and weather is volatile.
- The book cover. Not really a character I know, but the gorgeous cover (designed by W. H. Chong) was a real pleasure to have in my life during the reading process.
Favourite or Forget:
- Rather like a dream, this story has stayed with me in hard to grasp, intangible ways. Bits and pieces keep coming back to me at odd times. I suspect the Jungian references are telling us that this dreamy, fragmentary, illusionary quality is meant to be. And like walking a labyrinth, we’re meant to simply let go and go with the flow.
Book 14 of 20 books of
Book: The Labyrinth Author: Amanda Lohrey ISBN: 9781922330109 Imprint: Text Publishing Date: 4th August 2020 Format: Paperback
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.