Amanda Lohrey’s ‘The Labyrinth’ and making things by hand

All the animals at Berlin’s Anoha museum are handmade from recycled objects by various Berlin artists

The cure for many ills, noted Jung, is to build something, and this is the epigraph and theme of Amanda Lohrey’s atmospheric novel, The Labyrinth (Text). It’s my second read by a Tassie author this month and further proof that the briney air of that island casts quite a spell on its writers. This one has a clear and original premise: a woman, Erica Marsden, moves to a shack by the beach to be close to her adult son, who has committed a crime and is now in jail, and then decides to build a labyrinth in her coastal garden.

It’s about creativity and adult children and small communities and the destructive and healing powers of art. Winner of the Miles Franklin in 2021, I loved it for the writing and the perspective of a woman with an adult child. It’s a valuable reminder of the fact that our children will one day very soon be adults, living their own lives, which can be hard to see when you are in the chaotic midst of it, hunting for socks and putting food on the table and finding a torn-off scrap of paper in a dirty lunchbox that says PS make betr food.

It made me think about creativity, and handwork, and how the process of creation is at least as important as the finished product, if not more. It has been on my mind lately, the idea of making something with actual material rather than words, and doing something with my hands that isn’t writing or typing, and over the last few months I’ve been collecting fabric for a patchwork quilt from around the city – Berliners often leave unwanted clothing by bins or in playgrounds, and kids sell their old clothes outside their houses like Aussie kids do lemonade – and I’ll see where it goes once I have enough fabric. Possibly the missing link in all of this is keeping my hands busy and making a solid object, that will simply be beautiful when it’s done and keep someone warm, that doesn’t involve uncertainty or dead ends or the mining of mixed emotions. Plus I really like patchwork quilts.

I’ve also been working on my travel memoir about moving to Berlin with my family, and it’s an interesting experience. Apart from all the usual questions – is this worth reading, will people like it, what will my parents say, is that too mean, am I a terrible person – there’s also the unavoidable fact that going back over the last three years of your life and revisiting the difficult bits and thinking about why you made certain choices can be a little uncomfortable.

After all, with most choices in life, you make them based on the knowledge and resources you have at the time, and then you move forward and deal with what comes next. Of course you glance back, but you don’t make an actual day of it because what normal person would?

But with memoir, even travel memoir, you do. You sit down at your desk, get right in there and really dig around into your motivations and the sad bits and what happened next. You rake over old thought processes and think about what you chose over what you could have stuck with instead – in my case, not moving to Germany, a little over a year before the world more or less stopped thanks to a strange virus.

It’s possibly not healthy to scrutinise your past and to dwell on decisions like I am doing now. It isn’t like writing a novel where you can just make stuff up and permit your characters do things you wouldn’t do and invent awful people that don’t exist. With narrative non-fiction, you are writing about real people, and that means treading carefully while also registering excellent material when someone gives it to you, completely unaware that their outrageously cheeky comment might go a little further than just your startled ears.

There is a scene in Daddy’s Home 2 (which I adored, Mel Gibson is so well cast and Will Ferell’s slapstick is solid gold) that brought this home to me. The new girlfriend is a writer. She never actually interacts with the other characters, she just stares at them when they speak to her and then pulls out her notebook and starts writing. That was a little confronting.

At the same time, though, I can see the manuscript growing and sometimes I read a bit I’ve forgotten and quite like it, and getting all of this stuff out of my head and onto the page is clarifying and often wonderful. It’s strange that something can make you feel crazy but also sane. Memoir and patchwork quilts are very similar – you are taking real, found scraps and stitching them together to make something flawed but complete and that is very satisfying.

A few days ago I read something that made sense to me in the midst of this whole memoir writing bizzo, by one of my most adored writers, Hilary Mantel, whose memoir Giving Up The Ghost is one of the strangest and most original stories I have ever read. She says: “But if pain can be survived, it can perhaps be channelled and put to work… Comedy is not generated by a writer who sails to her desk saying, “Now I will be funny”. It comes from someone who crawls to her desk, leaking shame and despair, and begins to describe faithfully how things are. In that fidelity to the details of misery, one feels relish. The grimmer it is, the better it is: slowly, reluctantly, comedy seeps through.”

The only way to write about Germany and the whole experience of moving here just before a global pandemic with any honesty is to somehow laugh about it, to show the funny side. So that’s what I plan to do.

3 thoughts on “Amanda Lohrey’s ‘The Labyrinth’ and making things by hand

  1. Beautiful post, Zoe – love how you’ve collected your fabric for the quilt, love the comparison of a memoir to a patchwork quilt, and love the quote of Mantel’s. Your memoir will be epic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thanks Louise and always lovely to hear from you! I seem to be coming across the patchwork quilt/writing metaphor a lot lately while reading biographies of Gillian Mears and Helen Garner (more on them soon) and it makes so much sense as an approach, especially with a longer piece of writing. Anything that works right?! Hope you are well, Zoe


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