Erica buys a run-down shack in a remote hamlet on the coast south of Sydney, near the prison where her son is serving a long sentence after being convicted of a tragic crime. She feels compelled to build a labyrinth by the ocean, a meandering path, the walking of which may be the only way to subtract both past and future from conscious thought.
Intense and harrowing visits to the prison punctuate the narrative - written in italics, like bad dreams – reminders of the long seam of pain that runs down the cliff wall of Erica’s life.
In less capable hands, this story could have quickly gone off the rails. The labyrinth would have served as a neat metaphor for finding one’s way out of guilt or trauma. (Instead the author returns to the literal definition of the structure, or embraces a multitude of ambiguous and evolving associations.) Or the unlikely project would have brought a community together. (Instead, the women who come into Erica’s life find only temporary connection, and there’s enough friction to keep redemptive friendships off the page.)
A relationship of convenience does develop, almost in spite of itself, between Erica and Jurko, an undocumented stonemason camping nearby. His fierce independence and prickliness mirror hers, and there’s a fascinating interplay between the two as Erica measures her edgy relationships with men against her connection with Jurko.
But Erica remains a determined loner, taking stock of an uneasy life, negotiating space for herself, weighing the misogyny of the men around her against a lingering need to have them near, feeling her way through the complex guilt, love and hurt her son’s chaotic nearby presence elicits.
Reflecting Erica’s refusal to analyse, the prose is meditative but down to earth. The characters’ histories are just unlikely enough to be convincing. Clichés, sentiment and facile resolutions are resisted at every turn yet there are valuable lessons to be stumbled upon.
Amanda Lohrey’s book is deceptively simple, expertly designed but generous to readers comfortable with providing their own interpretations. At the centre of this meander is the unyielding Erica, a compelling character who – by never making her pain anyone else’s business – is a stoic heroine for these traumatic times.
The Labyrinth won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the ALS Gold Medal. It is out now through Text Publishing.