Felicity Volk
Desire Lines

British nature writer Robert Macfarlane describes desire lines as “paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers … contrary to design or planning”. Felicity Volk’s second novel traces such a contrary path in the unconventional love story of Evie Waddell and Paddy O’Connor: theirs is a grand passion that winds its heady course across continents over five turbulent decades.

Desire Lines opens in the present day, deep in the Arctic north of Svalbard. Evie – in her 60s, a landscape gardener and an expert in Australian native fauna – is depositing yam daisy seeds in the so-called doomsday seed vault for safeguarding in the Norwegian permafrost. Both the vault and the seeds are heavy with symbolism that echoes through the novel. From the frozen north, we are transported back in time to Evie’s and Paddy’s postwar childhoods.

Paddy experiences loss from an early age. Raised in a poor and violent London home, he is sent away to an orphanage when he is seven, his exile determined by a coin toss that lands in his brother’s favour – the family can afford to raise only one child. Torn from his beloved and beaten mother, Paddy hopes to be rescued from the bleak institution and reunited with his family but is sent instead to a farm school in Australia. His grand impressions of entering a sparkling Sydney Harbour are soon quashed when he arrives in Molong, in central western New South Wales: “Standing at the edge of the vast plain of bleached stubble, he was filled with a nameless terror.” Alone in this harsh landscape, Paddy loses his innocence, with an accretion of damage in those institutions whose abuses have recently become the focus of public scrutiny. Volk’s rendering of Paddy’s childhood trauma is accomplished and devastating.

In contrast, Evie lives an innocuous childhood in suburban Canberra. The child of a lawyer father who wants her to follow his career path, and a schoolteacher mother with a love of Chaucer, Evie doesn’t have a perfect family, but her upbringing is safe. Though she’s never met her grandfather, she is drawn to his passion for botany, one that will eventually lead her away from the law and into the garden. Her close relationship with her grandmother leads to an early lesson in telling the truth: that “bad lying can kill you from the inside”. This will stick with her throughout her life, particularly as she falls into a cycle of frustration and disappointment with Paddy.

The trajectories of Evie’s and Paddy’s lives converge in the Leura markets one summer in the 1960s. Evie is visiting her grandmother – now remarried – and helping out at her market stall, while Paddy is selling architectural models he has fashioned from matchsticks. Spotted by a teacher for his potential, Paddy has been plucked from the farm and enrolled on scholarship at a Blue Mountains boarding school. Their chance meeting – a too-easy cliché of love at first sight – leads to explosive passion that ebbs away when Evie returns to Canberra; a series of miscommunications leads to their drifting apart. Despite geographical and temporal distance, they linger in each other’s memories.

From here, Volk’s novel traverses her protagonists’ life markers: relationships, children, careers. Both are stuck in the inertia of stale marriages. Inevitably, and perhaps a little predictably, their paths once again converge. Evie’s work as a landscape gardener, and Paddy’s as an architect, brings them together on a project in Canberra – the building of the High Court of Australia.

The decades ahead for the not-quite-couple are full of compromises, infidelity, yearning and lies. Volk, who works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, weaves a well-paced narrative full of lyrical prose, against a backdrop of deeply researched Australian politics and history. She takes the reader from the fledgling years of the nation’s capital, through milestones such as the Mabo judgement, to the apologies to both the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians – children who, like Paddy, suffered in institutional care.

Of the two characters, Paddy’s story is initially more compelling, but as their lives unfurl, Evie draws more empathy from the reader as she strives to balance career against family, pursuing her passion for gardens – and for Paddy – while eschewing social conventions. Evie makes selfish and selfless sacrifices driven by a man who often fails to reciprocate her commitment, leaving her feeling foolish and alone.

The novel’s through-lines of beauty – in native fauna, gardening and architecture – provide a stark juxtaposition against the ugly themes Volk explores: family violence, poverty, loss and the concept of truthiness both in love and in contemporary Australian politics. As Paddy and Evie inhabit a lifelong orbit around each other, their story is moving and the resolution compulsive, even though the characters’ actions and decisions feel frustrating at times.

Desire Lines is hampered by some stylistic missteps, the most jarring being the sex scenes that read like passages from a prudish 20th-century romance novel, with references to Paddy’s “hard shaft” and Evie’s “sex”. Throughout the novel, metaphor is laid on a little too thickly, and complexities resolved too neatly; the opening passage of the frozen north is contrasted with a later blossoming and breaking fever; Paddy finds a watery baptismal redemption in a deconsecrated church named St Patrick’s; Evie’s yam daisy enthusiasm links her past neatly to her life’s passage.

This novel will appeal to devotees of literary historical fiction, for Volk has executed a solid example of the genre –reminiscent of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and, more recently, Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World. Still, it is fascinating to ponder how many more middle-class, middle-aged divorce novels Australian readers can possibly desire.

Justine Hyde

Hachette, 448pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "Felicity Volk, Desire Lines".

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Reviewer: Justine Hyde