I volunteer with a palliative program as a biography writer. People tell their stories, I transcribe them. People will often say that they have ‘nothing to tell’. That’s never true, although I have learnt that the dates and facts about a person’s life are not that important. Instead, the story is in the small details and their recollections of how they felt at particular moments – that’s where the meaning is found.
Favel Parrett’s third novel, There Was Still Love, demonstrates how detail tells the story. It’s an ode to the life Favel shared with her grandparents – her fond memories are woven through a fictional account of twin Czechoslovakian sisters, separated by World War II. One stays in Prague, the other crams her life into a small brown suitcase and travels to Melbourne.
You must close up tight, protect your most needed possessions – all you can hold. Your heart, your mind, your soul. You must become a little suitcase and try not to think about home.
The story is predominantly set in 1980 and moves between Melbourne and Prague, where each of the sisters finds herself caring for a grandchild – a young girl, Malá Liška, in Melbourne, and a boy, Ludek, in Prague.
There are many themes in this book – the meaning of home, loyalty, memory – and each is explored through the complex relationship between the two sisters. Both women have suffered loss, both nurse resentments but “…there was still love” between them.
“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, the taste of local beer. You long to have those things again – to see them, to smell them – and when you do, you know that you are home.”
The story is told from the perspectives of Malá Liška and Ludek, and as she has done in previous novels, Parrett captures the clarity (not to be confused with accuracy) of a child’s understanding of what is happening around them. She does this by bringing the child’s immediate world into sharp focus – the joy of finding a coin; the anticipation of a phone call; an interaction with a dreaded elderly neighbour. This focus on detail highlights the gaps. As I was reading, I realised that speculating about another person’s feelings, attitudes or actions is very much an adult thing. Adults fill in the gaps, whereas children notice the gaps – they might try to make sense of them, but within the bounds of what they observe.
I did not know what the word wog meant, but I knew that it felt like a giant spotlight suddenly shone on my grandma to make sure that everybody knew she did not belong. To make sure she felt ashamed of her accent, ashamed of her face, ashamed of the way she loved the taste of caraway seeds in her light rye bread.
Food plays an important role in There Was Still Love and the descriptions are superb – a jar of gherkins, carefully doled out; the aroma of a freshly baked bábovka; the monotony of cabbage; and drinking the cream from the cucumber salad. Malá Liška and Ludek’s daily life is marked by meals but more significantly, food contributes to their sense of ‘home’ – finding the ‘right’ gherkins in Melbourne; choosing rye bread with caraway seeds; Kaiser rolls with Swiss cheese and Pariser sausage.
I thought about how food is a huge part of my own memories of grandparents – special meals and celebrations; ‘helping’ in the kitchen with things my parents didn’t have the patience or time for… My Nanma drew little faces on our boiled eggs – a great treat when we stayed over at her house – and the eggs were always accompanied by two rounds of buttery toast ‘soldiers’. At my Nana’s we’d eat icy poles sitting on squares of newspaper so that it didn’t drip on the floor. My Papa would offer me bites of his bread, spread with cream and sprinkled with sugar. I could go on and on but the important thing is that in talking about gherkins and Kaiser rolls, Parrett creates a story that feels intimate and alive.
There Was Still Love is a deceptively simple novel – it reads as a straightforward character-driven story but close the book and reflect… I’m sure you’ll soon be thinking of your equivalent of little faces on boiled eggs or jars of gherkins.
4/5 Beautifully written.
…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 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.
There are many variations on cucumber salad in eastern Europe – this one is not swimming in cream.