Desire Lines, by Felicity Volk. Hachette. $32.99.
How often do you tell lies? Sometimes? Frequently? When it's required for convenience? Or do you carry a secret that pulls you down and remains hidden?
We all tell lies at times. But what is the impact of lies on our lives? How do we reconcile dishonesty and secrets? Is there a right time to reveal truth? And how do lies weave their way into the words of politicians and history?
These are questions explored in Felicity Volk's new novel, Desire Lines. "Are you still a liar?" reads the first line. And so begins the journey of two flawed but interesting characters, and the lies, both small and large, that permeate their relationships and impact their families.
Evie is the privileged daughter of a wealthy Canberra family, whereas Paddy grows up mired in poverty and domestic violence as the child of Irish immigrants in London. Unable to support their children, his parents surrender him to a charitable institution, and from there he's sent to Australia as part of a child relocation program in the early 1950s.
Initially, the lives of the two characters run separate courses. Evie is surrounded by family love and develops a strong relationship with her grandmother who teaches that lies can be harmful. Paddy experiences cruelty and trauma at Fairbridge Farm School near Molong, where children are abused and treated like slaves. His psychological scars reach into adulthood, affecting his ability to form bonds with others. Evie and Paddy meet at a market in the Blue Mountains and begin a long-term connection that will shape and reshape their lives over decades.
Desire Lines is an elegant novel. Volk shows sensitive insight into love and the human heart. She understands the flaws we all bear. The simultaneous hope and destruction that love sometimes brings. She evokes a strong sense of place. As the narrative shifts from Svalbard and London, to Molong, Sydney, the Blue Mountains and Canberra, you can smell the landscape, feel the air, hear the insects in the tree canopy.
The core of the novel is an exploration of lies and truth. At times this can be a little repetitive; readers can clearly see the vast network of lies. The lessons, however, are manifold and wise: "Lying is like a bad fungus. It gets under your skin and stops the good things that keep you alive."
Honesty is held up as something to be aspired to, but Volk doesn't shy from the cost of lying or of admitting the truth, especially as it plays out on women and families. She delves into the power of lies. Guilt and shame. Which lies are acceptable and which are not. The lies that sustain us, fuelling dreams we may never achieve. The lies we tell to protect ourselves or others.
Volk also illustrates the far-reaching impact of childhood trauma, as well as our inherent inability to change. Learned powerlessness prevails. Sometimes the truth can be more hurtful than concealment and deceit.
The writing is rich in metaphor and symbolism. The ice caves at Longyearbyen in Svalbard are a metaphor for hidden things in life and relationships: the freezing of the human heart when relationships are embedded in lies. These caves were clearly an important inspiration for Volk. They are home to a seed bank intended to safeguard plant genetic material into the future. With increasing temperatures due to climate change, the long-term security of this storage facility is in doubt. The ironic lie of permanence echoes through these caves. And the dormancy of the frozen seeds is like love, waiting for light and nourishment to live and thrive.
Important historical and political moments are woven into the story, representing the passage of time. The design and construction of Canberra, the High Court and National Gallery. The dismissal. Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. These events emphasise the lies and dishonesty in public and political discourse. Sometimes the lessons of history verge towards being didactic, but mostly they're rendered with subtlety, allowing the reader space for interpretation.
Ultimately, this is a novel of love and yearning, and how these things impact marriages and relationships. Trust and distrust entangle with truth and lies, showing "the inherently untrustworthy nature of happiness". Love is held up as a beacon, but it also fails, because lust and delusion are lies too.
Or perhaps that's the point. Evie says: "You could count on nothing to last forever, not an afternoon in the sun, not the pure milky smell of your baby's scalp, not a husband's thrall, not your own.'
While Desire Lines presents a strong focus on romantic physical love, it also reveals the slow realisation of truth as characters age. Admitting one's own mistakes can, perhaps, be the beginning of peace and salvation.
- Karen Viggers' latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter, published by Allen & Unwin.