There Was Still Love is a sweet story about parallel worlds, but it is not science fiction or fantasy. Set largely in 1980, it is the story of a Czech family, separated by space and time and politics. In one world, we meet a girl, nicknamed Little Fox, who lives with her Czech grandparents in Melbourne, where her grandpa is a nightwatchman in a factory.
In the other world, Prague under Soviet rule, there is Luděk, a young boy who lives with his Babi, his grandmother. Despite unreliable supplies in the grocery stores (Prague has run out of toilet paper!), and restrictions on expression and movement, Luděk enjoys a life of running around the city streets, so fast he believes he is invisible.
We find out that Luděk’s Babi and Little Fox’s grandmothers are sisters. Little Fox’s grandma Máňa and her husband Bill (formerly Vilém) fled Czechoslovakia around the time of the Munich Pact, which saw Nazi Germany annexe part of the country. Babi remained, and after the war Czechoslovakia was separated from the West by the Iron Curtain. They can visit each other by flying across oceans, but every time they cross between worlds they run the gauntlet of Soviet bureaucracy. Linking the two worlds is Luděk’s mother Alena, who fell in love with Western music like the Beatles, and joined a theatre troupe led by the mysterious Magician to travel the world.
It is a story about how two people can be born into the same world and end up charting different courses through life. There is lots of clever mirroring and doubling, but it never becomes too clever, it is always grounded in specific details: the apricot dumplings that Little Fox’s grandmother still makes in Melbourne, the Czech brand of gherkins that are the only brand her grandpa will eat, the Russian TV shows that Babi watches. This is emphasised by an elegant structure, juxtaposing chapters set in Prague with those in Melbourne, with little codas at the end of each to deepen the backstory of the characters. Throughout Parrett shows her skill in shifting voice across age and gender.
It is also a story of the migrant experience, beginning with the image of a suitcase, which reappears throughout the story. Little Fox’s grandparents have Anglicised their names, and try to hide their accents. At one point, a man calls Máňa a “stupid wog” when shopping at the market in Melbourne, and Little Fox realises that he did so “to make sure everyone knew she did not belong”.
But this is a very generous novel, with all the darker corners swept aside by the brightness of its child protagonists. At its core about the love that can cross space, that is still there in music, dance and theatre, even when those in power try to curtail it.
In an afterword, Parrett suggests this is very much based on her own grandparents, and the book is infused with love for this older generation, particularly the women who “held it all”, like the statue of Atlas holding up the world that is the subject of a Prague fairytale. It made me think fondly of my older relatives, and the things I don’t know about their own stories because I was too busy enjoying their doting attention.
Gay rating: not gay
There Was Still Love is published by Hachette.