Winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin Award.
Erica Marsden grew up in an Asylum, Melton Park. Not as a patient, her father was the chief medical officer and their family lived within the compound. Perhaps that is why their mother ran away when Erica was only nine, their father mistaken when telling Erica and her younger brother, Axel, that she would return.
Now grown up, Erica is returning to Melton Park. The asylum is now decommissioned and is somewhat of a tourist attraction. Her father was killed by a patient with a garden scythe, the gruesome story luring lovers of the macabre. Some things have changed, the church now a café, others have remained the same. There are signs of dilapidation, but also signs of restoration.
Surprisingly Erica and her brother were allowed to roam around the compound and what Erica is truly searching for is the labyrinth that she loved as a little girl. She remembers her and her brother playing for hours within its plane. The labyrinth seemed a magical place to the children. However, after searching it appears the labyrinth has disappeared.
A man working in the café, tells her that the labyrinth became overgrown and unruly and that it ended up being dug out.
Erica who has moved to a tiny coastal town in NSW to be able to visit her son who is imprisoned for manslaughter, decides that she wants to build her own labyrinth behind the dilapidated shack that she is living in and thinking of buying.
What unfolds is a beautifully written story populated by some wonderful characters.
Jurko, an illegal immigrant, camping in the forest hiding from the authorities is serendipitously a stonemason, and Erica hires him to build the labyrinth. He is a joy to read and a highlight of the book for me. Equally a joy, but a lesser character, is cantankerous old Ray. A grumpy old timer who helps Jurko, grumbling the whole time.
Much like “Lucky’s” by Andrew Pippos, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin as well. The strength of this novel lies in the narrative and the characters.
Yet there are also parts that I confess may have slipped over my head. There are dream sequences and memories that seem to follow a path and I am sure that the Labyrinth itself has a meaning to divulge. Is Erica’s life a labyrinth, twisting and turning leading to an undetermined goal? Parts of Erica’s life, her relationship with her father, and her son, are never truly resolved and I believe this may also connect to the labyrinth. Are we all negotiating our way through a labyrinth?
The labyrinth of life.
Amanda Lohrey is a novelist and essayist. She was educated at the University of Tasmania and Cambridge. She lectured in Writing and Textual Studies at the Sydney University of Technology (1988-1994), and since 2002 at the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.