I knew before I began There Was Still Love that it was going to be an emotional read – not just generically emotional, but emotional to me specifically. I’d heard Favel Parrett interviewed on ABC’s Conversations, so I knew that the novel was largely inspired by Parrett’s grandparents and the close bond she had with them as a child. I lost my own grandmother a couple of years ago, and continue to feel the loss deeply. As a child, we had a closeness that not many people get to experience with their grandparents; she lived around the corner from my childhood home, and so we were there every day. She was an excellent cook and loved making treats for us, which she did as often as she peeled and sliced apples, meticulously thin, for us to snack on. At my grandparents house, I was happy just sitting on their couch under a warm mohair rug, watching Midsomer Murders and trying to work out who the killer was before Inspector Barnaby did.
The scenes of the two children – Malá Liška or ‘little fox’, in Melbourne, and Ludĕk, in Prague – with their grandparents are beautifully drawn. In Melbourne, Máňa and Bill (originally Vilem) have created a version of Prague in their small apartment. They save up for the cheapest flights possible to return home to Czechoslovakia to visit Mana’s sister, Eva. Eva looks after her grandson Ludĕk while his mother tours as part of the famous Czech black light theatre (I have been lucky enough to see black light theatre in Prague and I loved how Farrett described the spectacle). Despite the huge differences between Melbourne and Prague in 1980, the novel finds parallels in the two children’s lives. They are linked forever by the two sisters, separated by geo-political circumstances. A single chapter is devoted to Máňa’s perspective, from 1938, and describes how she manages to flee Czechoslovakia and leave her sister behind.
Papa paid for stolen papers – somehow. Only enough money for one…
A passage to London. A little brown suitcase. A skirt. A blouse. A cardigan. My old winter coat. My brown shoes. Papa’s English dictionary – his name written on the inside cover. I am alone now. Completely. I must become Marie.
Máňa and Bill live in London and later Australia, but while Bill does largely succeed in becoming accepted by English society, Máňa finds it more difficult. Bill notes that ‘her accent – it is stubborn. It does not want to leave. Maybe she can’t let it go because it is the one thing she still has from home… He loves her face – her strong face. They talk about her face, the women in the street. About how it is so different. So foreign. So strange.’ In Melbourne, Malá Liška witnesses her grandmother devastated by being called a wog in public.
Farrett perfectly captures the mind of a child faced with things they cannot understand, particularly in the voice of Ludĕk. I finished this novel wishing there was still more to come.