Australian writer Favel Parrett’s beautifully expressed When the Night Come made quite an impression on me when it was published in the UK back in 2014. It was its Antarctica setting that first attracted me but it was Parrett’s gorgeous writing that left me wanting more. It’s clear from its dedication that There Was Still Love is a tribute to her beloved grandparents, borne out by her note at the end of this lovely novel that takes us back and forth from Prague to Melbourne in the early ‘80s, following two sisters separated in 1938 at the beginning of the German occupation.
In 1980, Ludĕk runs up and down the streets of Prague before flying home to his grandmother’s tiny flat. It’s just the two of them. Ludĕk’s mother is a dancer, on tour with the Black Theatre, only allowed out of the country if her son stays at home, and his father is dead. Meanwhile, his cousin Malá Liška lives with her grandparents in a Melbourne apartment decorated as if it’s been transported from Prague. Once an engineer, her grandfather works as a night watchman. He and her grandmother cut every corner so that Máňa can visit her sister Eva and their grandnephew, Ludĕk, every four years. Malá Liška has never met her cousin, staying with her uncle for six weeks while her adored grandparents are away. The sisters’ reunions are full of reminiscence. Eva and Máňa talk while Ludĕk and Bill walk the city, often revisiting the house that Bill lived in when he was called Vilém. Ludĕk doesn’t know his Aunty Máňa and Uncle Bill’s story but he knows not to mention the war. When his mother returns with her partner and a baby, the new family moves away leaving Ludĕk’s whole world behind. One day, Malá Liška will see pictures of this cousin she’s never met when his grandmother comes to Australia.
Parrett unfolds her story in impressionistic episodes, much of it from Ludĕk’s perspective, punctuated with snapshots of the family’s history reflecting the cataclysmic events that overtook Czechoslovakia. Ludĕk’s sections are fresh and immediate, the language clear and bright as he seizes his freedom, making Prague his own running through its streets when his grandmother thinks he’s playing in the park. There’s an aching homesickness underpinning the novel with its recurrent motif of suitcases. Máňa and Bill still live like exiles, recreating Prague in their tiny Melbourne flat, each forced to leave the country they loved through circumstance. While Bill is more pragmatic, Máňa yearns for her sister. Parrett’s tender portrayal of this couple who love each other and their granddaughter dearly is beautifully executed. Such a touching novel, a work of fiction as Parrett makes clear in her author’s note, but undoubtedly a testament to the lives of the grandparents she adored.
Sceptre Books: London 2020 9781529343557 224 pages Hardback