Amanda Lohrey, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing 2020)
Having threatened us with another Rachel Cusk title, this month’s Book Chooser opted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, a decision I applauded.
Before the meeting: The book’s narrator, Erica Marsden, moves to a small town on the south coast of New South Wales to be near the prison where her son is serving a life sentence for murder. Harking back to her own childhood in a mental institution where her father was head psychiatrist and inspired by a dream, she decides that a way out of her depression is to ‘make something’, and sets out to create a labyrinth in the weedy patch of sand beside her shack. Between dispiriting prison visits, she makes connections in the local community, and runs into an illegal immigrant who has just the skills needed to help design and build the labyrinth. As she realises her plan, she regains a degree of equilibrium, and her son seems – tentatively, incompletely – to be returning from the weirdness that had led him to commit a horrific act and then be lost in rage-filled (and, she believes, mother-blaming) isolation.
That’s it. It’s beautifully written, including some evocative moments when Erica is bemused by unspoken understanding among diverse male characters. I loved it.
My one small complaint is that there are no illustrations. Even though the descriptions the making of the labyrinth are very clear, I lack the visual imagination needed to interpret them. When I looked online, key words like ‘seed pattern’ seemed to have different technical meanings from the ones Erica gives. I mention this in the hope that an illustrated edition may be on the way.
What you get from a work of art depends on what you bring to it. I brought quite a bit to this book that intensified my enjoyment of it. I’ve seen the labyrinth at Chartres, and it was covered with wooden chairs just as Erica describes it. I’ve meditatively walked a small labyrinth at Glendalough in Ireland. Much more significantly, I took part in Connecting Hearts Project, an art work created by the Emerging Artist, which invited participants, among other things, to walk a kind of labyrinth made of terracotta hearts while reflecting on our common humanity, on our connection to people fleeing persecution, especially those held in detention by successive Australian governments, and on what it means to belong. With her permission, here are a couple of images:
And a video of the London iteration, where the spiral/labyrinth appears from 2 minutes 22 seconds:
After the meeting: There were six of us. The streets were awash outside, but we were warm and dry in our host’s home, which had been a rundown mess when we met there just before the onset of Covid, but he and his family have rebuilt as a joy and a wonder to behold. We ate well, and drank well (I wasn’t the only one to bring non-alcoholic beer, one of the many pleasures of the evening).
Probably because we were all so pleased to be meeting in person again, and because of the absence of him who has been tacitly designated the group facilitator, we spent a long time chatting – mainly about the new house and the current theatre work of one of us, complete with some great inside-theatre gossip – before focusing on the book.
The terrific discussion was kicked off by someone who said he had reread the second half of the book because it seemed that everything that had been built up in the first part was then wasted in the second. Characters were introduced with the beginnings of narrative arcs, and nothing came of it: an architect promises to get back to Erica with ideas for a labyrinth, then nothing; a teenage girl is seen self-harming, then nothing; Erica meets a neighbour’s daughter, then nothing. On a second reading he felt he had been too harsh, but still felt like things more or less petered out.
I couldn’t fault him on his description, but I felt that it worked, and struggled to say why. In some way, the incompleteness of the stories was the point. The labyrinth itself (mild spoiler alert) is never finished, and there’s a tiny movement in a key relationship towards the end that could be the beginning of significant change. I passed around printouts of some of the above pictures.
A third chap said he read the book as a study in grief: after the ordeal of her son’s trial and imprisonment for a horrific crime, Erica is in a fugue state, and the failures to connect or follow through on other people’s stories is a function of that. He drew our attention to the last two paragraphs, and when they were singled out in this context I think we could all see how beautifully the book is brought home. Both the opening speaker and I said we now felt like rereading the book from the beginning.
One chap confessed right at the start that he hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the discussion, and I almost wished I could have been him when, in the middle of all the discussion of grief and fugue states, small town communities, the perils of living as a refugee, the points of similarity and difference between this book and, say, Sea Change, and so on, someone asked, ‘What about the book burning?’
Then five of us made our various ways home, all through streets that were awash.