Text Publishing, $29.99
The Labyrinth is the seventh novel by Tasmanian author Amanda Lohrey, and was awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Award in July.
The premise of the novel is a familiar one, as Lohrey herself stressed in an interview with Guardian Australia: “People have always tried to escape into some kind of primeval landscape of rural virtue, in order to restore some damaged part of themselves.”
In some ways, The Labyrinth fits that familiar pattern to a T: Traumatised narrator flees the city for somewhere he/she is unknown. Meets a cast of local characters, many eccentric and enigmatic. Ultimately forges new relationships and achieves healing/romance/happiness, while learning new liberating rural skills such as home renovation or farming.
What sets The Labyrinth apart, though, is both the beauty and simplicity of Lohrey’s writing and the magnitude of the tragedy that has caused her narrator, Erica, to flee Sydney for a tiny coastal town. This is more than a broken heart. Erica has one child, Daniel. He is serving a life sentence for negligent homicide; there is no question of his guilt in the deaths of five innocent people.
Erica has moved to be close to the prison where Daniel serves his sentence, although his contempt for her is withering; he hardly speaks to her when she visits. Settled into a small, unrenovated shed near the ocean, she becomes obsessed with the idea of building a labyrinth – not, she stresses, a maze, in which one can get lost, but a labyrinth, conducive to meditation and peace.
Erica begins her story with her childhood, lived in the bizarre environment of a cottage within the mental hospital where her father, Ken, works as a psychiatrist. Her mother abandons the family when Erica is 10, and she becomes a surrogate mother to her younger brother, Axel.
Daniel’s father is Gabriel Priest, an artist; he, Erica and infant Daniel live in a Redfern squat until Gabriel abandons them. Daniel, until his conviction, was also an artist. Axel has married a woman who disapproves of how Erica raised him, and Erica refuses to even open the letters Axel sends her.
Like many books of the “rural virtue” genre, The Labyrinth offers us a few quirky locals. Yet Erica’s transformation doesn’t really begin until she meets Jurko, an enigmatic migrant from the Balkans and a trained stonemason who agrees to help her build the labyrinth. Erica also befriends Lexie, a troubled teenager whose touching devotion to her younger brother helps Erica make sense of her own sibling relationship.
The Labyrinth may travel a familiar path (no pun intended!), but it does so with eloquent prose. Erica describes the view from her shed: “The moon, a deep pink sphere, has risen over the sea and sits low above the horizon. A thin vertical band of charcoal cloud has drifted across its surface to bisect it …”
Few authors write about grief, sorrow and scenery in such luminous prose as Lohrey.