Awaiting new works from talented authors is exciting. The lead-up to an anticipated release seems to pass slowly, and then finally you are holding the new novel in your hands. Then there is a small breath-holding moment in which you wonder if the book will live up to your expectations.
That's how I felt when I received There Was Still Love, Favel Parrett's third novel. I wasn't disappointed.
Parrett's first two novels, Past the Shallows and When the Night Comes, both resonated strongly with me as they reflected passions and places I love. Past the Shallows, a devastating portrait of a family breaking apart, was short-listed for the Miles Franklin award in 2012. It's set on the coast of southern Tasmania: a wild, haunting, and inspirational place that I too have written about.
When the Night Comes, Parrett's second novel, was centred round Antarctica and the ill-fated resupply ship for the Australian Antarctic Division, the Nella Dan - reviving memories of my own journeys to Antarctica as a volunteer veterinarian in the mid 1990s.
What's so magical about Parrett's work is her spare, illuminating prose, and her artistry at showing, not telling - a goal for all fiction writers that is so hard to achieve.
She's also masterful at capturing a child's voice and perspective, noticing the small things that make up a world. It is this skill that she brings, once again, so effectively, to her third novel, There was Still Love.
There's something infinitely honest, moving and arresting about observing life, hardship and adult interactions through a child's eyes. In There Was Still Love, although there are snippets written from an adult point of view, the narrative is mostly carried by two young protagonists: Ludk and Mal.
The novel opens with a vignette about suitcases as a metaphor for life, struggle and secrecy. During war, people "must close up tight and 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".
Ludk is a 10-year-old boy who likes to run. He lives with his grandmother, Babi, in Prague during the Cold War, and he loves to explore the city, roaming the streets when he should be playing with other children in the park.
His father is dead, his mother is overseas performing with a travelling theatre group, and his life is hard - not enough food, clothes that are too small, few toys, few outings. However, he wants only simple things: a dog, cake, stories.
The highlight of his year is when relatives from Melbourne come to visit - Aunty Ma and Uncle Bill, Babi's sister and her husband. Ma was sent to London when the Cold War began. There, she met Bill and moved to Australia to start a new life. Ma and Bill offer insights into the West that are inconceivable to Ludk.
Nobody speaks of war, but it's a constant underlying tension. Ludk senses fear and hidden things in the adult conversations he overhears: secrets, changed names and identities, the suspicion of being watched by the authorities.
He also hears talk about Ma and Bill's grand-daughter, Mal, who lives with them in Melbourne - a cousin he has never met in a world he will never see. "He would probably never go on a plane, and he understood that."
Mal - Little Fox - a young red-headed girl, is the other main protagonist. Through her, we see the difficulties and challenges of her grandparents' immigrant life in Australia: poverty, unemployment, racism, isolation, separation from home, fear for family members living behind the Iron Curtain.
Leaving home and family, and trying to establish in a new country isn't easy, but the adults never complain.
As Bill says, "The only way to live now is to keep moving and not look back. It is the only way his heart can keep on beating and not break."
Women, specifically grandmothers, are the glue that holds these families together across time and space.
Wisdom shines in their actions and silences. Babi is especially strong. To Ludk, she is like Atlas, who "carries the whole of the sky and the heavens on his shoulders".
Both women are strict and adept at hiding their emotions; "Her face was a solid slab of concrete". However, despite sadness arising from suffering and loss, there is always love: for family, memory and home. Which is everything, isn't it, when you think about it?
On the surface, There Was Still Love is a gentle story, but underlying the aura of calm is evidence of deep grief, pain, persecution and sadness. However there is also hope, love, endurance, unity and forgiveness.
In this beautifully layered and sensitively constructed novel, Parrett has once again given us a novel of the heart to be pondered and enjoyed.
- Karen Viggers is a bestselling Canberra author. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.
- There Was Still Love, by Favel Parrett. Hachette. $29.99.