Books

Amanda Lohrey
The Labyrinth

As a child, Marita, the protagonist of Amanda Lohrey’s novel Camille’s Bread (1995), rewrites the endings to stories. Later, she steps out of the swift stream of her life as a working solo parent to focus on nurturing her daughter. She yearns to be “earthy, grounded; a woman who knows how to bake a proper cake”. She hasn’t rewritten the ending to one of her favourite novels, Jane Eyre, but she hopes to. The novel’s epigraph frames Marita’s exploration of what can and can’t be stomached – stories, nightmares, dogma, bread: “The child’s first decision, noted Freud, is whether to swallow or spit it out.”

Lohrey often positions her characters at the edges of worn-out lives; she has them pitched or leaping out of stories that fail, or fold too soon, places where they can no longer breathe. In A Short History of Richard Kline (2015) this imprisonment includes the body as Richard chokes “the whole messy labyrinth of his guts” with anger.

Sometimes bread is just bread, as Freud never said. For Marita, though, an intermission involving cake- and breadmaking – prefiguring by decades the proliferation (and perishing) of lockdown leaven – allows her to consider what she absorbs or rejects. This exploration is unsettled by her new lover, Stephen, whose practice of macrobiotics and shiatsu becomes restrictive. Both hope for nurture, an opening, a different ending. Neither knows exactly how that might be made.

These questions recur in The Labyrinth, Lohrey’s subtle and iridescent seventh novel. Like Camille’s Bread, it begins with an apocryphal-sounding epigraph: “The cure for many ills, noted Jung, is to build something.” Erica Marsden grows up “in an asylum, a manicured madhouse”, among pottery wheels and electroconvulsive therapy, trimmed perimeters and fraying lore. Her father, Kenneth, a psychiatrist, is chief medical officer of Melton Park, an institution that looks like a country estate. In the asylum’s grounds he sets up craft studios and plays in a jazz band comprising staff and inmates. There is also a labyrinth, fascinating to Erica with its “mystical geometry” and “secret formulae”.

Because Ken believes “when you make something you become a rivet in the fabric of the real”, he gives permission for an inmate, a botanist who has murdered his wife and chopped her in a blender, to start a flowerbed. Not long after heatedly expressing her unease about this privilege, Erica’s mother runs away. Years later, one of the patients murders Ken with a scythe.

Not everything goes to plan, then, and Ken’s other maxim is dis aliter visum – the gods thought otherwise. When Erica is a child, Ken’s sister Ruth sends her a postcard of Ely Cathedral’s wrecked Lady Chapel, its statues – mostly of the Virgin Mary – hacked from their niches and shattered. The “smashed faces of the saints” remind Erica of her mother, “there and not there”. If making is the cure, violence is the wound, its repercussions the lag, churn and fracture of “otherwise”.

These patterns haunt Erica, when, decades later, she leaves Sydney and buys a shack in a small coastal town to be near her son, Daniel, who is imprisoned after being convicted of a violent crime. There, she returns to the vision of the labyrinth.

Lohrey navigates the slippage between literal aspects of labyrinth-making – drafting plans, carting rocks, sand washed away by a deluge – and the figurative, the psychiatrist’s daughter archly conscious of the psychospiritual dimensions of her quest. Erica doesn’t think about Jung, beyond noting that her father tended to dismiss his work. Yet he haunts the novel, the labyrinth being a symbol for Jung of the unconscious. He described being lost in life as “losing the Ariadne thread”, alluding to the Greek myth of Ariadne, who saves her beloved Theseus from the human-devouring Minotaur in the labyrinth by providing him with a ball of thread with which to retrace his steps to escape.

Shaken out of her life by Daniel’s destruction, Erica returns to early memories, looking for patterns. Daniel, an artist, reader and collector of books, has destroyed his work, and asked his mother to do the same with his books (“they have deceived me”). In her shack, she burns them one by one. Lohrey unpacks the narrative, including details of Daniel’s crime, as Erica unpacks boxes of his books, an intermittent line of exposition broken by the novel’s more prismic geometry, the glint and winks of lives’ patterning – lost sons, making and destroying, agency and the Minotaurs that prowl nightmares’ pathways.

There’s Daniel’s painter father, Gabriel Priest, named to lurch between angelic and moribund authority, son of a judge, artist of his own demise; Jurko the self-exiled stonemason, his bones broken by his father, his asylum in Australia rejected; women young and old entrusted with or evading the yoke of maternal nurture.

Erica’s dreams – things mislaid or salvaged from fire, abandoned babies, intruders – bridge the past and the future-in-making. In the haunted and consolatory space of exile, Erica finds a psychological version of the porousness that will allow the labyrinth to withstand the shifting of the land beneath it. This is also the porousness of kairos – the opportune moment, “a sudden opening in the fabric of time” – an instant of wonder that does not submit to the “mere arithmetic” of chronological time. These are epiphanic instants Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”. These openings, like the “alchemy in brick” of the labyrinth itself, enable creation not in spite of destruction, but owing to it, a transmutation only possible after loss, breakage and the decision to reshape a life story.

Into these sudden moments arrive the people who transform lives patterned as much by accidents of grace – an inheritance, a refuge or a shared meal; the serendipitous arrival of intimacy and love – as by disaster. Among the many offerings and refusals of nurture Lohrey depicts, Erica muses that bread is never just bread. The Labyrinth is a nuanced and engrossing novel of bread and bones broken, the trace and rack of violence, and threads that lead the way out of exile. 

Felicity Plunkett

Text, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Amanda Lohrey, The Labyrinth".

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Reviewer: Felicity Plunkett