The story of this book is told mostly from the viewpoint of two children in 1980, one in Melbourne and one in Prague. They never meet but are connected by their grandmothers, twins separated as teenagers during wartime in Prague. Each child lives with their grandmother and experiences hardship, but also great love for their grandmothers. Luděk is a young boy who runs through the streets of Prague–and has a lively and appealing interior life.
He knows all the statues on the bridge by heart. He has names for them all and he yells at each one as he runs.
‘Hey Fat Guts! Hey Stupid! Hi Dumb-Dumb! Hey Sleepy! Hey Hunchback! Hey Squint Eyes!’
He shows remarkable kindness toward the very old deaf woman who lives nearby and has tea with her one day, and wished he hadn’t visited her because now he would think about her being alone. For such a young kid, he is quite articulate about food and is discerning about who is a good cook and who is not. There is great love expressed on more than one occasion for cucumber and cream salad (cucumber, cream, vinegar and black pepper). Sounds pretty good to me.
The other grandchild, the one in Melbourne, speaks in the first person and tells of listening with her grandfather to Holst’s The Planets. They eat the same lunch together each day, rationing carefully to save money for trips to Prague so that her grandmother can visit her twin sister. The affection among the family members is palpable.
Understanding the connection of the twin grandmothers comes opaquely; we learn more through a visit to Prague and from a brief description of events in 1938. What does come through clearly is the pain of the separation of the twins and the deprivations of both sisters. Both experienced economic hardship, the Czech sister suffered from the authoritarian oppression while the Melbourne sister was displaced and alone. When the Czech sister is able in 1981 to visit Melbourne, the past comes up and causes harsh words between them. The visitor finds herself overwhelmed by the grocery store choices, and longs for the world she understood: Russian TV with two stations, her radio, her flat.
Through the lives of these characters the book gives glimpses of the much-loved Prague, the brutal limits from the war and totalitarianism, the excitement of hearing international music in the 1960s, then the tanks arriving in 1968, and the unfulfilled promise of a prosperous life in Melbourne.
Parrett, Favel, There Was Still Love, Sceptre, 2020, 288 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.