I treasure Favel Parrett’s debut novel Past the Shallows and have found There Was Still Love (Hachette Australia) to be similarly gemlike and told with shards of pain and love. It explores three generations of a family living in Prague and Melbourne in a fragmentary and episodic style with several points of view. These all cohere.
Young Ludek lives in Prague with his Babi (grandmother). He loves to run. His mother, Alena, is a performer with the Black Theatre. She travels the world but is always pulled back behind the Iron Curtain by her love for Ludek and to safeguard the freedom of her family.
Babi’s twin sister Mana and her husband Bill visit each year from Melbourne. Life in Prague is revealed to us through their times with Babi and Ludek. Ludek’s experiences and feelings are told in third person. He is a kind boy who cares for his grandmother and helps Old Lady Blaza.
Mana tells him the story of Atlas who carries the burden of the world on his shoulders but drops it to save a young girl. When Ludek searches for and finds the statue, he understands Babi’s sacrifice for him.
In a parallel tale set in Melbourne in 1980, Mala Liska, nicknamed Little Fox for her red hair, tells some of her life. Her voice has the immediacy of first person but is eclipsed by the vitality of Ludek’s character. She lives with her grandparents Bill and Mana and uneasily witnesses her grandmother’s humiliation when called a “wog” and her grandfather’s retrenchment.
Czechoslovakia is rendered with a muted vibrancy. Places, food and dance are etched with colour. Rationing, loss and the theft of the country through the 1938 Munich Agreement convey the sorrow of a betrayed and damaged country.
The idea of home is explored. “It is easy to think somewhere else is better. But when you leave home, there are things you miss that you never imagined you would. Small things. Like the smell of the river, or the sound of rain on the cobblestones …” Home may seem commonplace but is yearned for when lost.
There Was Still Love is suffused with images of cabbages and gherkins, the running boy, white swans and most evocatively, a little brown suitcase, a suitcase into which the enigmatic Magician places broken people. Yet, throughout this elegy, love continues to shine.