Daughters of the Labyrinth by Ruth Padel

Reviewed by Lory Widmer-Hess

When we went to Crete last October (during a brief window when travel was possible), I knew little of the island’s history beyond the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, and had never heard of the city of Chania. But when we passed through on our way to and from the southern beaches, I was enchanted by this beautiful city with its many layers of history, its ancient constructions of diverse religions and cultures, its winding streets and surprising views, its jewel of a harbor open to the sea yet protected by a dividing wall. With its buildings of golden stone and its piles of rubble still speaking of old wartime wounds, this is a place with many stories to tell.

Our visit was brief, and I didn’t have much time to delve into all that Chania had to tell me. So I was delighted to find that a new novel, Daughters of the Labyrinth, promised to take me into this world through the story of a Cretan-born British artist returning to her roots. I opened the book and plunged into a mesmerizing tale of secrets, lies, suffering, the ties of family, and healing.

Ri is a painter who has lived and worked in England for many years. Following the death of her husband, David, she is mourning his loss and wondering about her next steps. She’s created a series of paintings based on a visit to her family in Crete, for a show that’s just about to open, but something in that work doesn’t satisfy her. When her mother has an accident and she’s called home, she starts to finally learn about some of the hidden darknesses that haunted the shadows of her painting.

Ri’s parents grew up during the Second World War, and like many who lived through that terrible time, they have tried to put it behind them and shield their children from its horrors. But now, under the pressure of illness and old age, the secrets begin to emerge, and Ri slowly learns of the past she never knew, the hidden, labyrinthine underground history that has shaped her experience without her conscious awareness, and that must change her whole image of who she is.

In the process, there is pain but also the relief of being able to finally share it, choices that are hard to understand but also the chance to forgive and accept one another more fully. Ri’s journey helps her to grow as a daughter, as a mother and as an artist, and her family to come more bravely into the light of day, with their loving bonds tested but intact.

Padel, a poet with many books including one other novel to her credit, is not a Cretan by birth herself but loves the island and clearly knows it well. The place that I glimpsed only briefly rose in my mind’s eye once again, and I learned so much about what lies behind those secretive walls, those formidable mountains. As so often, there are parts of our human history that we would much rather forget – but after the passage of some years, and with the consoling distance of fiction, it may become possible to remember and to honor the past, while striving towards a better future. In this novel, Padel has crafted a moving work of the imagination that can help us to face reality with sorrow but also with strength.

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Lory Widmer Hess blogs about life, language, and literature at Entering the Enchanted Castle.

Ruth Padel, Daughters of the Labyrinth (Corsair, 2021). 978-1472156396, 336pp.,hardback.

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