Book review: Desire Lines by Felicity Volk

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

There is an exquisite beauty and longing to Desire Lines by Felicity Volk which never departs from the idea that life is a chaos of messy entanglements which none of us can ever quite pull apart.

That should be obvious but time and again, society, or at least the shouty yelly legalistic part of it that seems determined to enforce on everyone and everything, insists that the lines of our existence are black and white, avowedly, cleanly linear and clearcut.

Life, real life, however, has wholly other ideas which Volk explores affectingly in a novel that is not ashamed to let everything hang out to dry.

It’s honesty about the divergence between what we think we want and what we actually want, between what we think we should do and what we actually long in our desirous hearts to do, and the yawning gulf between public pronouncements and acts and inner truthfulness, if it allowed a voice which it often isn’t, is invigorating, inspiring and beautifully, movingly sad.

Just like life which, if we lift off the strictures of easy answers, unexamined assumptions, and ill thought-out beliefs, is a million miles away from the neat and tidy worldview of the loudly opinionated among us.

“He [Paddy] wondered whether the Singapore’s Best tin was still buried in the plot, or if whoever weeded its garden might have exhumed the relics of the two Fairbridge deaths. He was not inclined to investigate further and he found he had nothing to say – to the ghosts of his friends or the ghost of himself, the boy who had once been capable of the sort of attachment that made a memorial necessary – so he picked a flower, tucked it in the buttonhole of his open shirt and left.” (P. 240)

Desire Lines honesty, its exuberant willingness to tell it like it is in a quietly understated away that is nevertheless profoundly emotionally powerful, is what makes it makes such an invigorating joy to read.

Covering the period of 1952 through to 2012 and the lives of two people who in normal circumstances would never have met – British child migrant Pádraig O’Connor who finds himself working on a farm for children like him in Molong, NSW as a seven-year-old, and Evie Waddell, scion of a Canberran legal family who is expected to follow her father into law but loves plants and horticulture instead – the novel is a nuanced, slowly-unfurling masterpiece of storytelling that never once condemns its protagonists for their missteps.

In fact, it never refers to them as such, accepting from the get-go that we never deliver on the idealistic aspirations we set for ourselves, a reality and that it is neither a sin nor a failing, that it is simply something that happens on the deeply road we cut through life.

Meeting as teenagers at markets in Leura, NSW near where Paddy is studying on a scholarship – it is this gift of a new way forward that transforms his life and while it doesn’t even remotely justify the horrors of the child migrant program, it is the thing that changes this young man’s life for the better – and Evie staying with her grandmother, her kindred spirit, and her new lover Monty, the two form a bond so powerful that neither can ever shake themselves free of it.

Felicity Volk (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

The thing is, neither particularly wants to.

Though both go on to marry and have children and do what is expected of them – to some extent anyway; Evie especially bucks expectations left, right and centre – but lingering is this feeling, this idea, that there is something richer, more wonderful, more meaningful lingering just out of reach.

Or is it well within their grasp and they are simply not sure how to grab a hold of it?

Desire Lines power comes not simply from its transcendentally poetical language, which is lushly exuberant, but from its insights on the rarely-admitted truths of the human condition, an often messy, contrary state in which we lie to ourselves with alacrity, often without realising we are doing it.

Or all too aware we are doing it but having no choice in the matter because of convention or expectation, or because it suits our purposes at the time; whatever the motivation, our lives are often constructed on one conveniently-placed after another, teetering houses of cards that may or may not come crashing down but which are always in danger of doing so.

The magnificence of Desire Lines is that it doesn’t hesitate from pulling back the curtain, from exposing the existence of the lies, accomplishing it in a breathtakingly beautiful way that is never condescending or condemning but simply honestly, understandingly truthful.

“She woke in the middle of the night remembering the Thryptomene. She had left it sitting on the car floor, forgotten in the pleasure of Paddy’s early arrival.

By the light of the moon, she dug a hole in the place she had planned for the shrub. She cut away the plant’s sheath. A chandelier of brown roots spilled from the plastic; potting mix sprayed over her hands. beneath the dusting of fine dark soil, Paddy’s ring glinted on her finger.

She did not bear his name, but she wore his crest. And like any gardener worth her salt, she had not lost her steady obsession with the future.” (P. 349)

In Volk’s expertly-crafted, sensitively but robustly-articulated world, the lies we tell ourselves are a natural part of the business of being alive.

Sure, we twist ourselves into agonising knots trying to accommodate the opprobrium and ill-measured censure of others, but if we were all honest with each other, none of us have hands frees of the very human calling card of duplicity.

The reasons for our employment of this tactic differs from person to person – certainly Evie and Paddy have divergent appetites for the lies they tell themselves, each other and the consequences they might unleash were they to see the critical light of day – but the end result is the same … we either hide the lies from ourselves and each other and suffer loss or we express them and see where the chips may fall.

It isn’t pretty, it’s rarely elegant, but though it may take almost a lifetime, as it does with Paddy and Evie, the falling of those chips can bring forth something wholly unexpected, an unforeseen turn in the road that can change things wildly beyond our expectations.

Desire Lines is beautiful, honest and true, a love letter to the power of the truth and the cancerous though understandable leaching and unfulfilling nature of lies, to the way in which each of us tell ourselves stories to get by and even how the most lost of things can one day find their rightful, if much-delayed, place in the messy landscape of our lives.

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