Novel way to unravel a labyrinth question

Tony MagnussonAAP
Author Amanda Lohrey has revealed the inspiration for her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel.
Camera IconAuthor Amanda Lohrey has revealed the inspiration for her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel. Credit: AAP

Five years ago, when Tasmanian author Amanda Lohrey began her seventh novel, The Labyrinth, she wanted to understand the reasons for a recent rise in popularity of a form of landscape design with lineage to ancient Egypt.

"I was interested in the idea of the labyrinth because there's been a great resurgence of building them all around the world in the last 30 years," Lohrey says.

"I thought, 'why is this happening? What do people get out of it, how is this meaningful and why would someone build a personal one?'

"Maybe they'd build it for therapeutic reasons, because they're dealing with a particular problem in their life, and so one thing led to another," she continues.

"When you write a novel you try out various ideas and abandon a few before you get one you're comfortable with."

Lohrey on Thursday took out Australia's pre-eminent literary prize when The Labyrinth was named winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The $60,000 prize is awarded annually to a novel of "the highest literary merit" that presents "Australian life in any of its phases".

The award was established in 1957 further to the will of writer Stella Miles Franklin, most famous for her 1901 debut novel My Brilliant Career, and its 1979 film adaptation directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Judy Davis.

Lohrey, who lives in a small hamlet on the northeast coast of Tasmania, was working on her next novel when she received the news by phone.

"The Miles Franklin (Literary Award) is special because it's the oldest and it comes with a lot of tradition," she says.

"Miles Franklin herself was one of the great Australian nonconformists and a bit of a larrikin, actually. It's good to have that connection to her."

The Labyrinth is narrated by its protagonist, Erica Marsden, whose artist son has been jailed for homicidal negligence after setting fire to his studio and causing the death of five neighbours in what was described as "a monstrous act of egotism" by a judge presiding over the subsequent trial.

Erica relocates from Sydney to a small coastal community not far from the steel and concrete complex in which her violent, seemingly unfathomable son is being held. There, she recalls the words of her late psychiatrist father, quoting Jung: "The cure for many ills is to build something."

"We've all had that experience when you're working with your hands and you forget about time," Lohrey says.

"You go into the zone where there are no deadlines, no schedules, and it's often when we are at our happiest."

Seeking to reckon with her own past while making timid inroads with her new neighbours, Erica feels the urge to construct a labyrinth - the idea of which has long bewitched her - next to the beach shack she has purchased.

The novel, which deals with intergenerational trauma, the burden of grief, the corrosive nature of guilt and the use and misuse of art, is a case of third-time-lucky for Lohrey. She was shortlisted for Camille's Bread in 1996 and longlisted for The Philosopher's Doll in 2005.

"Any prize that comes with a cheque is special," she says.

"It'll finance the next book, that's what prizes do, because your income as a writer is always uncertain and unpredictable."

For Lohrey, The Labyrinth is about "making and building and creating".

"There are the two artists - Erica's son in jail, and the (itinerant) young stonemason who actually builds the labyrinth for Erica - and they're two sides of the one coin, if you like, the bad son and the good son," she says.

"They both create, they both make beautiful things, and they're both a bit obsessive. The novel is partly about art itself."

In the book, Erica comes to the realisation that the labyrinth is "a model of reversible destiny".

"The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart are you?), the labyrinth to the heart (will you surrender?)," the character meditates.

The distinction is key.

"People build labyrinths as a walking meditation, whereas in a maze there are lots of dead-ends and you've got to concentrate all the time to find your way around. It's not relaxing in the same way," Lohrey says.

"When I was doing research, this came up a lot.

"People found that they would walk the labyrinth and it would calm them. They would often solve a problem that they had been unable to solve before, not even by thinking about it, just by walking the labyrinth and the solution would come to them."

So did Lohrey build herself a labyrinth while writing the novel to deal with any creative hiccups?

The author laughs. "Shamefully, no. First of all, I'm too busy writing, and secondly, I'm hopelessly impractical. Writing is my labyrinth."

If the process of writing can be likened to negotiating a labyrinth, then so can reading.

"Good reading experiences are slow," Lohrey says.

"As a reader, there's that sense of happy inevitability, of relaxed certainty, and the labyrinth is a very good image of that because there's a complex path that loops backwards and forwards but you know you'll get to the centre and then find your way out."

As with reading, entering a labyrinth is an act of surrender, the author states.

"That's why people find them so satisfying and why they build them in parks and hospitals, for example. They are popping up everywhere."

In the same way, Lohrey surrendered to a lot of writing and rewriting over three-and-a-half years in an effort to produce a story that felt both authentic and incantatory.

"I wanted the novel to cast a spell so that reading it felt like walking a labyrinth," she says.

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