Amanda Lohrey wins Miles Franklin prize for The Labyrinth

Tasmanian writer Amanda Lohrey has collected her first Miles Franklin Literary Award, at the age of 74.

Although a nominee on a number of occasions, and the recipient of other notable gongs over the years such as the Patrick White prize and the Victorian premier’s literary award, it has taken a lifetime for Lohrey to snag what is arguably the most prestigious prize for Australian writing, with her seventh novel The Labyrinth.

The $60,000 win was announced on Thursday via live stream for the second year in a row, due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Miles Franklin judge and Mitchell Librarian of the State Library of NSW, Richard Neville, described The Labyrinth as “an elegiac novel, soaked in sadness”.

It tells the story of a woman who moves to a remote rural community to be closer to her son, who is serving time in jail for homicidal negligence. She comes to know her neighbours, but not necessarily like them, when she embarks on building a stone labyrinth, in an attempt to make sense of the loss and isolation in her life.

“It is a beautifully written reflection on the conflicts between parents and children, men and women, and the value and purpose of creative work,” Neville said.

Speaking to Guardian Australia, Lohrey said while she was drawn to political themes in her earlier works of fiction, as she has matured as a writer she has become more intrigued with the internal journeys people make in their lives.

“I’ve called [The Labyrinth] a pastoral, because I wanted to explore the tree change and the sea change [phenomena] which is actually a centuries-old move,” she said.

“People have always tried to escape into some kind of primeval landscape of rural virtue, in order to restore some damaged part of themselves.”

The fact that Lohrey’s central character of Erica Marsden chooses to build a stone labyrinth – as opposed to a maze – to repair the broken part of herself is significant.

“A maze is a puzzle, it’s a test of your intellect, it has a lot of dead ends, you can get lost,” she said.

“A labyrinth has one path in and the same path out. It can be a very complex path that loops around and takes you a while to get to the centre – and a while to get back out – but you can’t get lost … you will always find your way out.”

Guardian book reviewer Bec Kavanagh describes The Labyrinth as a “sharply tuned novel” and a “sprawling narrative that resists rigid expectations”.

“The Labyrinth offers a pull towards the unknown and a comfort in solitude,” Kavanagh wrote in August last year.

“Despite sometimes eerie loneliness, the book is quietly compelling, a carefully planned reflection on the many ways that we might retrace and remake ourselves and our relationships.”

, Amanda Lohrey wins Miles Franklin prize for The Labyrinth, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
, Amanda Lohrey wins Miles Franklin prize for The Labyrinth, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Australian author Amanda Lohrey and her 7th novel The Labyrinth. Composite: Text Publishing

Lohrey said the novel, published by Text Publishing, had been well received widely, but declined to say whether she believes The Labyrinth is her best work yet.

“I have had a tremendous amount of positive feedback, particularly from book groups and book clubs, they can often be very critical,” she said.

“But my novels are all very different, and it’s very hard to be objective about your own work.

“And of course the reader is the co-creator of the book, they bring 50% to it. And so the book is different for each reader.

“It’s fascinating when you go to book clubs as a guest and you hear them argue about your book and you think, ‘was that the book I wrote?’, because people reading fiction, it’s such a deeply subjective experience.”

Female writers have dominated the Miles Franklin Literary award for the past decade. Only one male writer, Serbian-born A S Patrić [Black Rock White City], has been awarded the prize in the past 10 years – in 2016.

“Funnily enough, since the Stella prize [introduced in 2013 to recognise female writers, and a response to the traditional male dominance in Australian literary prizes], more women have won the Miles Franklin than men,” said Lohrey.

“I don’t think anyone now in the current climate would bother setting up any more gender-specific prizes, we’ve got one, and that’s enough,” she said.

“But good on the Stella, the more prizes the better. We need all the prizes we can get in Australia, it’s a small market, and even writers that are well reviewed and sell moderately well are still not making a good living.

“A dollar prize really sets you up to write your next book.”

Like most writers, Lohrey is loth to discuss the book she is now working on, although she is happy to reveal it is already half-finished.

“Writers are deeply superstitious creatures, and also what you think the novel is about often times [it] turns out to be about something else,” she said.

“It kind of evolves as you go along and that’s that’s the fun of it, you never know where you’re going end.

“It’s a very playful exercise, even though there’s a lot of anguish along the way because, like a maze, you can go up a lot of your own dead ends, before you get where you need to go.”

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