Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Sometimes you read a book and it becomes a total balm for the soul. This was the exact feeling that was evoked when I read Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize and recently won the Book of the Year at the Indie Book Awards.
This gently told tale in sparse prose is about the impact of the Cold War on one family. Twin sisters, Eva (Babi) and Máňa, are separated by hemispheres — and political ideologies — for one remains in Prague after the Second World War and the other immigrates to Melbourne, Australia.
In a narrative that swings between time periods and locations — Prague, 1938; Prague 1980 and Melbourne 1980 — the family’s history is revealed through the eyes of the twins’ grandchildren, Luděk, in Prague, and Malá Liška (“little fox”), in Melbourne.
Their voices, naive and innocent, are wonderfully realised, for there are things that the children do not understand about politics and economic systems and the real reason why the adults around them behave as they do. This makes for a bittersweet read, because you become emotionally invested in the characters, but it’s also an effective device for showing how children see the beauty in the smallest of things and how their worlds are shaped by the adults around them.
A story about grandparents
Perhaps during this time of coronavirus lockdown when grandchildren are separated from their grandparents, this book proves a timely reminder of the bonds that can be created between the generations (the author dedicates the book to her own grandparents “who were the very best of people”).
But this is also a tale about immigration, specifically what it is like to immigrate, to recreate a home away from home and of the dislocation one feels when you do not truly belong to one place or another, of the heartache of leaving loved ones behind and of knowing that you can never truly be together anymore, of the casual racism experienced in an unfamiliar culture.
It also reveals the sacrifices and compromises that are made along the way, the stories we tell ourselves to get through the day, and of the way we cling to traditions and cultural props.
But this is also a story that brims with love and laughter. It’s full of beautiful imagery and lush descriptions of food. In fact, food is a constant theme in this book, because it is food which — aside from family left behind — ties you to your homeland more than anything else:
Bottles of beer and bottles of wine — lemonade for me, sweet and fizzy. Chicken schnitzels, fried potato, cucumber salad.
That was my favourite — cucumber salad with cream and vinegar and black pepper, chilled from the fridge so all the cucumber juice got sucked out of the cucumber slices and mixed in with the cream. The salad bowl still had some of the cream left in the bottom and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I wanted to grab the big bowl up in my hands and drink the cream down.
If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved There was Still Love. It brims with love and charm, the perfect antidote to the strange times we are currently living through.
I have previously reviewed Favel Parrett’s When The Night Comes, which I also loved.
This is my 5th book for #AWW2020.