Favel Parrett’s third novel, There was still love, is one of those novels in which not a lot happens but has a lot going on. Just the sort of novel, really, that I tend to like. (It all started with Jane Austen!)
The novel revolves around the lives of two Czech sisters, one who ends up in Melbourne with the other remaining in Prague, but their story is mainly seen through the eyes of their grandchildren. Melbourne-based Malá Liška or “Little Fox” lives with her grandparents Máňa and Bill, while Prague-based Luděk lives with his Babi (grandmother). The novel is set mostly in 1980, and alternates between these two places, with occasional forays into other places and/or times to fill in some backstories. It’s a carefully constructed book, one that benefits from close reading, which is not to say it’s hard reading, because it’s not. It’s one of the fastest reads I’ve had in some time.
Now, if you know your European history, the above description will have suggested to you the book’s framework, and you’d be right. Separated during World War Two, with young Máňa going to England, the women’s lives are further up-ended by the 1968 Czechoslovakian Revolution. Through it all, although physically separated, they stay in touch, via letters and the occasional visits back to Prague by Máňa and Bill:
My grandparents saved their fifty-cent coins to buy aeroplane tickets. They managed to do this every four years, sometimes every three years if they were careful. If they saved very hard.
They bought the cheapest tickets.
They took the longest route.
Such is the call of home, about which more later.
The stories, as mentioned above, are told through the eyes of Malá Liška (in first person) and Luděk (in third person.) I suspect Malá Liška’s is first person because she is modelled on Parrett herself, thus providing a grounding authenticity. Luděk’s story is, the Author’s Note says, drawn from the experiences of her cousin Martin. The Prague scenes, she writes, “would be nothing” without his help. I haven’t visited Prague, but Parrett, through Luděk via Martin, brings it alive:
Luděk loved the mess, the decay. His city wasn’t clean, it wasn’t pretty. And there were wires everywhere in the sky and they crisscrossed like a million black lines. Everything was covered in stinking soot, in pigeon shit, covered in old rusted scaffolding … Prague was his city, the flat his whole world, and he loved it all.
Prague, and his grandmother’s flat, in other words, are his home.
There was still love is about many things, of which love, which survives upheaval and separation, and home, which you can make and remake throughout life while never forgetting your origins, are the two overriding ones. These are big themes, and yet the novel is just over 200 pages. I’m in awe of Parrett’s concision. There were some in my reading group who wanted the whole family saga – which I get – but I loved Parrett’s ability to convey a wealth of meaning and history in a phrase, a sentence or a short scene. Here, for example, is a scene between Luděk and his uncle Bill, in Prague:
‘I think that man is following us,’ he [Bill] said, and his eyes moved up the path towards another bench.
Luděk remembered how his Mama said they were always watching at the airport, watching, taking photos …
Babi told him never to say anything important on the telephone.
The reality of living under surveillance is conveyed quietly, thus, in a couple of pages, but we readers know exactly the fear and brutality that lie just behind these words.
Another example of this concision is a brief scene in a Melbourne shop during which Máňa is called a “stupid wog”. She walks out of the shop with dignity, but Malá Liška notices that “a tear, just a small one, spills down her soft, powdered cheek and she does not wipe it away.” Again, a brief scene, but we know that this is not the only time Máňa has been treated like this. Life, Parrett shows, can be difficult whether you stay or go.
Parrett also achieves concision through a “suitcase” motif. It is introduced in the gorgeous brief poetic prologue called “The suitcase”. Parrett describes suitcases being everywhere, evoking a powerful image of people on the move, of people escaping and of people not getting away. She writes:
You must close up tight, protect your most needed possessions … your heart, your mind, your soul. You must become a little suitcase and try not to think about home.
From here on, suitcases of all sorts are subtly dropped into the narrative to suggest various ideas – a suitcase in a roof space holding an old gymnastics blazer from a past life; “a suitcase with yellow eyes – a suitcase with a mouth like a big black hole” in a Czech Black Light Theatre performance in Melbourne; people arriving at airports, looking “dazed, pushing trolleys loaded up with suitcases”. The most powerful reference, though, comes from The Black Light Theatre Company’s Magician (based on the still living Jiří Srnec):
I put the broken in my suitcase and take them with me until they are ready to go home again.
There is still love.
There it is, home and love again. Luděk’s much missed mother travels with this company, and is tempted to defect to the free West.
Closely related to the idea of love and home is the story of refugees, of migration. In a little section devoted to him, Bill tells of changing his name from Vilém in 1942 England in order to fit in, while Máňa “works on her accent”. He shares the pain of leaving one’s home:
The only way to live now is to keep moving forward and not look back. It is the only way his heart can keep on beating and not break. He must look forward and not behind.
He must never look behind.
A common – and painful – experience for refugees.
Finally, There was still love is also a story about women, and particularly old women who carry on. It is Luděk, loving his grandmother and coming to care for another old women, who voices this:
The city was full of old women left behind, left to keep everything going – to carry the old goddam world by themselves.
My reading group briefly discussed the title, There was still love. What did “still” mean we pondered? “Still” as in ongoing, or as in continuing despite everything? Both, I think. Whatever the meaning, however, There was still love is a moving read that reminds us yet again that the most important things in life are home and love, wherever you find them.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved this book.
There was still love
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019