Tasmanian author Amanda Lohrey won the Miles Franklin Literary Prize of $ 60,000 for her seventh novel, The Labyrinth – hailed by the judges as “a beautifully written reflection on the conflict between parents and children, men and women, and the value and the purpose of creative work “.
She is the second Tasmania to win the award in 64 years of history, after the late Christopher Koch (for The Doubleman, in 1985 and Highways to a War, in 1996).
In accepting the Palawa Country Prize on the northeast coast of Tasmania, where she lives, Lohrey thanked her 30-year-old agent, Lyn Tranter, her publisher, David Winter and Text Publishing, “[which] has always put literary values before commerce “.
She also thanked her family and friends “for putting up with a very vague and distracted writer.”
In The Labyrinth, hotel receptionist Erica Marsden leaves Sydney for a small town on the south coast of New South Wales to be closer to her son Daniel, a mentally ill artist who is serving a life sentence for murderous negligence.
As she searches for a suitable house to buy, she is guided by a mission sent to her in a dream: to build a labyrinth, defined in the book as “a single path that leads in a convoluted maze to its center, and sets out again. again”.
Why dream of a labyrinth? Erica used to play in a child, when she lived in an asylum where her father worked as a psychiatrist.
Dreams, psychiatry, mazes – yes, Jung is a clear influence in this book. One epigraph says, “The cure for many ailments, Jung noted, is to build something.”
To emphasize this point, Lohrey makes sure the reader knows up front that a maze is “unlike a maze, which is a puzzle made up mostly of dead ends designed for entrapment.”
Erica tells us:
“The labyrinth is a challenge for the brain (how intelligent you are), the labyrinth for the heart (you will go). In the labyrinth, you take up the challenge but in the labyrinth, you let go. Without effort you come back to where you began, somewhat changed by the act of surrender. “
Erica, as the narrator, takes the reader on a journey of her own – as well as a more outward journey, through which she mends her damaged relationship with her son and finds her place within her new small town community. .
Richard Neville, Mitchell librarian of the State Library of NSW and president of the jury, describes it as “an elegiac novel, drenched in sadness.”
But it’s fundamentally a novel about hope and resilience.
The idea of a labyrinth
Lohrey, like most writers – and certainly all great writers – is a keen observer.
She says The Labyrinth began with her observation that labyrinths were proliferating around the world. The same was true of related things like “walking meditation,” where people walk these paths as a form of spiritual activity or mindfulness practice.
Which made her wonder: why?
“I’m really interested in the way people create special places [or] special spaces, ”she told ABC Arts.
Lohrey has a long-standing interest in spirituality, as evidenced by her novels A Short History of Richard Kline (2015) and The Philosopher’s Doll (2004), which she previously attributed to her Catholic upbringing.
She also started meditation as a young woman and became interested in how (and why) people revolve around this practice.
More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she observed the renovation boom and saw it as a symptom of a similar basic urge: “To create an ideal refuge.”
Jung might have agreed: “He was very, very good at crafting; he used his hands,” Lohrey says.
“And he himself, at home, had this kind of extraordinary semi-tower that he spent most of his life building and never finished. And that’s where he was going to think about it. and resolve the tensions. ”You know, he practiced this sermon.
“It’s common psychology now that we can be obsessed and overthink a problem, but as soon as you start using your hands and building something, you become more grounded in space and time. forgetful – in a good way, ”says Lohrey.
“And the labyrinth replaces that. And I think that’s why so many of them are being built in the world now. Because people don’t have the consolations of religion to the same degree as before. And they watch. towards creating new forms of sacred space. “
I ask Lohrey what her own “coping” mechanisms are, and she says, “Oh, well, I’m hopelessly impractical – like, I couldn’t build anything. And I’m fascinated and amazed by the people who do it. can. “
She pauses. “I guess my creation is writing.”
Make the novel
As Kate Evans notes in her review of ABC RN’s The Bookshelf, The Maze is light on plot – and heavy on ideas.
It is also all about craftsmanship – as a subject, but also in its form.
“My goal was to write a story that felt like a meditative walk in and out of a maze,” Lohrey told Claire Nichols on ABC RN’s The Book Show.
“And so – to be technical about it – it takes a lot of very careful control to do it.
“You really can’t afford a loose word or a spare word: the prose has to be really tight and you have to kind of hit your target.
“You know, the actors when they’re playing on camera have to hit their target every time: well, in that kind of story you have to hit the target every time or you break the spell.
“So, needless to say it took a lot of drafts.”
On a larger level, the novel takes the form of a “pastoral” English novel – but subverts it.
“This is the classic story of the jaded and sophisticated city dweller who goes to the countryside to revitalize himself by coming into contact with virtuous shepherds – or rural virtue,” she says.
“Of course, we all know that small country towns are not full of rural virtue, they are as complex and difficult as cities.”
In The Labyrinth, Lohrey writes the coastal hamlet of Garra Nalla from some personal experience.
“I’ve lived in small coastal towns, and that’s pretty much how I found them,” she told The Book Show.
“Most small coastal towns have their share of eccentrics.”
She points out that neighbor Ray, in The Labyrinth, is meant as an alternate figure of a “shepherd” – literally a licensed roustabout – who is actually quite obnoxious.
Perhaps interestingly – especially given the Labyrinth’s structural vanity – Lohrey says she’s not “a planner” when it comes to her writing.
“I do not plan anything, what generally happens is that an image, even a fragment of dialogue, takes hold of me and does not let go of me.
“And then I sit down to work with it, and then it evolves into something – or not: it might just fall apart and end up in the bottom drawer,” she told The Book Show.
“But if it grows, it grows – and I don’t know where I’m going with it. Sometimes I think I do and then I’m wrong. And that’s half the fun, really: not knowing where you’re going.
“I mean, if you knew where you were going, when you started – or if I I knew where I was going when I started, I would even be too bored to start. “