Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2020

The Labyrinth, by Amanda Lohrey

In her fascinating new novel, Amanda Lohrey returns to the (fictional) small coastal town of Garra Nalla which featured in her novella Vertigo (2008, see my thoughts here).  But unlike Vertigo‘s young couple swapping high house prices in Sydney for what they think is a pastoral idyll, the central character in The Labyrinth is Erica, an older woman, alone and very troubled.  Although less naïve than Luke and Anna in Vertigo, Erica shares their belief that the environment significantly affects well-being and this yearning for a salve to her misery seems to be all she has at this time. She has settled in Garra Nalla to be near her only child, Daniel, who is in prison, but she hopes that the small community will not connect her with him because his crime weighs very heavily on her.

My understanding of what this might mean has been influenced by Margaret Merrilees excellent debut novel The First Week (Wakefield Press, 2013) which explored the confusion, denial, blame, guilt and horror of a parent whose child has committed a grievous crime.  Erica, however, has moved beyond the initial distraught reaction and is trying to reestablish some equilibrium in her life while also trying to help her son whose mental health is a grave concern.  With no plans to renovate, she buys a rustic old shack built with reclaimed materials on the coastal edge, in marked contrast to the soul-destroying environment of the prison:

The metallic walls of the prison glint above the frost-covered fields.  Along the denuded mining ridge of the hills the wind turbines stand like elegant guards, their blades becalmed in the harsh light. (p. 26)

The walls of the visitors’ room are a violent mustard yellow,  On one wall there is a huge mural of crudely drawn trees and boulders in shades of muddy orange and greenish brown.  It has the quality of sludge.  Two warders escort me to a steel table, bolted to the floor, and I sit on a steel chair, also bolted to the floor.  Everything here is steel and concrete; even the air has a metallic taste. (p.27)

But Erica’s coastal retreat is no Eden.  There are vandals and louts on the beach, and she plants wattles to screen out an annoying neighbour.  Plagued by horrific dreams, she begins the task of following her son’s command to burn his books.

She makes a small ceremony of this, just doing one book a day, and like all booklovers, I know why.  Our books are a mirror of our lives and a window into our souls. Burning Daniel’s books is like annihilating him.  Later, when she employs Lexie, a young girl at a loose end who needs to save up the money to make her escape to Sydney (because there is no work for young people in Garra Nalla), she elongates the time for this task by having Lexie sort the books into alphabetical order.  Lexie is a slow and dreamy worker, but even so, there must be hundreds of these books to be unpacked from the boxes because Lexie is only up to the letter M by the time the novel ends…

Time, like different kinds of madness, is a recurring motif in the novel.  Erica grew up in an asylum where her father was the chief medical officer, and he had contradictory ideas about time:

Time is a disease of the human psyche. One of my father’s precepts.  Sane people live in the moment, they do not dwell on the past and they do not succumb to fantasies about the future.  But on other occasions he would contradict himself.  When people go mad, he would say, they step out of time because time has become unmanageable and everything is chaotic flux.  They cannot put one foot in front of the other in any meaningful way.  Nor can they make a decisive intervention in the sequence of time as measured in units by the society around them. Chronology defeats them.  One disease generates another.  The larger social disease—generates the smaller private one: a mad resistance. (p.167-8)

Two characters embody these conceptions of time: cantankerous old Ray who insists on measuring each hour of his life with an alarm clock, and Jurko’s refusal to acknowledge time at all.  An illegal immigrant who helps Erica to create a labyrinth on her property, Jurko has stepped outside society: he has abandoned family on the other side of the world, he sleeps in a tent even when he has other choices, he rides a bike and refuses to have a phone, and he disapproves of meat, sugar and restoration projects for tourism.  His eco-puritanism is annoying but he is a skilled stonemason and Erica, whose whole life has been blighted by abandonment, cares about him all the same.

Towards the end of the book, Erica is woken by a bird colliding with her window and retrieves a word from her memory:

Kairos.  A word  from my small portion of undergraduate Greek, a word I had stored away: meaning not time, but timeliness.  By this the Greeks meant the right or opportune moment for doing, a moment that can’t be scheduled, as it is poised between beginnings and endings.  It does not submit to chronos, which is mere arithmetic: a minute, an hour, a day, a decade, the work of timekeepers. Kairos exists as a potential, a mode of improvisation, of responding to a sudden opening in the fabric of time.  No theory can enable or plan for it.  Abandon the fixed time, wait for the moment to arrive, and then act.  At nineteen I had been struck by this, had decided that this was how I would live my life.  It seemed then to be purely a matter of resolve; instead, it requires inhuman patience.  And faith.  (p.225)

This faith in the coming ‘moment’ sustains Erica in her dispiriting visits to her son.  Her days have no routine and she does things impulsively.

Jurko is one of a number of arrivals in her life who embody this concept of Kairos but he seems to be the most important one because he understands her interest in labyrinths.  In modern English the words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ are synonymous, but Erica whose childhood featured a labyrinth in the asylum distinguishes between them because she is groping towards acceptance:

I have learned that a simple labyrinth can be laid out by anyone, unlike a maze, which is a puzzle of mostly blind alleys designed for entrapment.  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.  In this way the labyrinth is said to be a model of reversible destiny.  (p.37)

Erica remembers her father’s maxim about the restorative power of building something and so she plans to build a labyrinth on a patch of arid ground, spending many hours researching ideas for it.  Labyrinths have a fascinating history and you can spend enjoyable time fossicking around online to see some of the designs she considers, see Wikipedia here:

While you’re there, check out this short video as well.  It’s a Cretan labyrinth made with 2,500 burning tealights in the Centre for Christian Meditation and Spirituality of the Diocese of Limburg at the Holy Cross Church in Frankfurt am Main-Bornheim.  Jurko would not approve of this one because it has something in the centre.  Whatever you put there will own you, he says. (So, remembering the bushfire in Vertigo and Luke and Erica’s naïveté about fire risks, I’m not sure what to make of Erica putting a fire pit in the centre of hers.)

Erica’s labyrinth is a yearning for surrender, a dream of escaping from her entrapment in a maze from which it is difficult to extricate herself.

Written in meticulously crafted prose, The Labyrinth is a deeply satisfying work of fiction which replays close reading and would be a wonderful choice for bookgroups that enjoy the literature of ideas.

Image credits:

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Labyrinth
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330109, pbk., 256 pages
Source: Personal library… I’m not sure which retailer this copy is from because I accidentally bought two copies, one from Readings and the other from Benns Books, and did a giveaway for the second copy!

Available from Fishpond: The Labyrinth or your favourite indie bookseller… please support Australian booksellers!


  1. ‘The Labyrinth’ is on my reading horizon already and now I want to add ‘The First Week’. You’ve done it again, Lisa. :-)


    • Ha! You can talk!!
      Seriously, The First Week is one of those life-changing books that made me aware of something I had never really considered, and Lohrey does it as well. Merilees’ character is just at the beginning of a long journey, while Lohrey’s is learning to live it.
      We love our kids, and we want to feel proud of them no matter how they make their way in life. To have a child do something that is not only utterly reprehensible but also ruins the parent’s life in ways they could never have foreseen would be a ghastly experience… we see glimpses on TV, for instance, of the parents of murdering husbands who have killed a daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and we have little comprehension of what that means. But these two writers have tackled this situation with such great care, compassion and wisdom, I believe that reading these two books have made me more sensitive to the problems of anyone connected with crime in this way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Terrific review, providing much to think about . . . even before tackling the book!


  3. Very complex plots. Maybe not my cup of tea but sounds like these would be a good use of one’s mind.


  4. I can understand the difficulty with burning books – culling my book collection was so hard – it took me days to make myself finally haul them all to the local OpShop – it’s like parting with old friends!


    • It’s hard to do after someone has died too. But then, it’s hard to pack up anything in the way of personal belongings when it’s someone you love.


  5. I’m not sure whether or not I will read this book; I am also aware that you may not appreciate the idea that you’ve written such a good review that perhaps you’ve saved me the effort of reading it.


    • Hello Anthony, that is indeed a double-edged compliment!
      You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you thought that my words could in any way be a substitute for Amanda Lohrey’s…


      • Of course. I’m not far from a top library that has suspended late fees and is Covid immaculate so I’ll ‘book it’ on reserve soon. Thanks for your reviews. I value them.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the best review I’ve read of his book. To do my review (a much slighter affair) I read Vertigo and thought that was also a stunning book: highly atmospheric and most relevant to Australia today.This lead me to read Camille’s Bread and also have The Reading Group and The Philosopher’s Doll to go. Did you ever review Camille’s Bread? I would love to see your take on it. Many people were annoyed by the characters, especially Stephen, but I think Lohrey really captured a section of Aust life that is rarely explored. Why doesn’t she have more recognition?


    • Thank you:)
      I wish I had reviewed Camille’s Bread, but my records show that I read it in 1996, a year before I started keeping a reading journal.
      Goodreads says it won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and the ALS Gold Medal which must be how it came to my attention back then. (It was nominated for the Miles Franklin, but that went to Highways to a War by Christopher Koch, which I can’t argue with, that was a very good book, that one.)
      So you are tempting with towards a re-read, but I’ll have to defer it for a bit. I have 17 books on my 2020 Aus-release TBR and am running out of 2020 to read them in.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a wonderful review. Thanks for taking the time.


  8. […] The Labyrinth, by Amanda Lohrey […]


  9. I once briefly – in the course of my work – met the parents of a young man whose drunk driving had resulted in the deaths of three of his friends in a car accident. The vision of their stricken faces – his and his parents – has never left me. I can’t even begin to fathom how the parents cope, Of course they knew his friends and the parents of his friends. It was beyond awful. There are some situations that just have me crawling away whimpering. I think I’ll have to take a look at this book but it’s borrowed until February!


    • Another one to read if you can find a copy is the one by Meg Merrilees that I refer to in the review. The First Week is another superb exploration of how parents can be sucked into a maelstrom of misery in situations like this.


  10. […] Only one novel was mentioned more than once, Amanda Lohrey’s The labrynth. Literary editor and critic, Susan Wyndham said Lohrey “shows how art can both destroy and heal”. Poet and critic Felicity Plunkett agreed, saying it “examines the trace and wrack of violence and the counterbalancing creativity that might transmute it”. Historian Judith Brett, describing it as being “about suffering and redemption”, writes that “Lohrey’s social observation is acute and the writing is superb, spare, and filled with light and wisdom.” Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loves this book. […]


  11. […] The Labyrinth (2020) by Amanda Lohrey […]


  12. […] of books that deserve more attention, Amanda Lohrey’s hypnotic The Labyrinth didn’t even get longlisted for the Stella. It’s the best thing that she’s ever […]


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