Hachette, Australia, 2020
This exquisitely crafted work is Felicity Volk’s second novel. At its simplest level it is the story of a long love between two people so necessary to one another that time does not diminish its potency.
However, there is nothing simple about this deeply metaphorical novel which explores, at both a macro and a universal level, truth and lies, justice and injustice, the national conscience, love and loss, shared and divided histories and the matter of place and displacement. Hanging weightily over it all is the question of the survival of the world and its plant species – present in the act of Evie’s delivery of seeds to the international seed vault in Norway.
Written in a luscious poetic prose, this book follows the lives of Evie Waddell and Paddy O’Connor as they cross and part and cross and part. Evie has a Canberra childhood, the daughter of a senior lawyer father and an English teacher mother. Paddy spends the first years of his life under the tyrannical hand of a drunken, philandering, wife-beating father and a loving but down-trodden mother.
He is sent to Nazareth House as an ‘unwanted’ child, where he endures the inexplicable cruelty of the nuns and then to Australia under the notorious Fairbridge Farms scheme, where he again experiences the cruelty of the adult staff and the grief of loss of his two closest friends.
These are scenes we can hardly bear to read, so terrible is the treatment of the children. But read we must and as we do, we see Paddy’s strength, capacity to survive and later to prosper, taking professional studies in architecture. He meets Evie for the first time when they are teenagers – she is staying with her beloved grandmother and Monty (the late life love) in the Blue Mountains, and they immediately connect with a passionately adolescent intensity, but their lives proceed on different tracks until much later.
Evie has obediently followed her father in a legal training but all she really wants to do is be a landscape gardener – she has acquired a love of plants and gardens and all things botanical from her grandma. And thus it is that many years later when she has followed and succeeded in her professional dream she meets again with Paddy, she as the landscape architect and he the building architect for Canberra’s High Court.
The vicissitudes of their unresolved relationship continue. However, along the way we also delve into Canberra’s and the nation’s social history with the Mabo decision, the apology to the Stolen Generation and then the apology to the Fairbridge Farms children.
We consider the centenary celebrations in the light of Evie’s passion for social justice for the Aboriginal peoples. We also see a passion for an architecture with a connection to the land and here is where the relationship between Paddy and Evie also finds its physical symbolism.
There is much to consider in this book, much to hold us to the page. The writing is at times sublime as Felicity Volk draws us into landscape and light. At the same time, the style is highly readable, always accessible. The author invites us to consider the nature of justice, the grace of forgiveness and acceptance.
She invites us to allow the characters their foibles, to understand that for all of us the present has roots in the past. There is a depth of pain and much of the author in this work – but thankfully we are left with a joyous hopefulness at story’s end.