There Was Still Love is a fantastic novel about a Czech family broken apart by the Second World War and the subsequent division of Europe by the Iron Curtain.
Mostly set in 1980, the novel revolves around two sisters: Mana who lives in Melbourne and Eva who lives in Prague. Mana and her family are able to save up to visit Prague every three or four years, but these visits are frustratingly short and far enough apart that Mana cannot really be part of her sister's world. And Eva has an opportunity to travel to Melbourne with her theatre company, but if she doesn't return her family back home will suffer.
Both families have young children - in Prague there is Ludek, a day-dreamy boy who likes to hang out with the city's statues and listen to legends. In Melbourne, there is Mala Liska - little fox on account of her red hair - who struggles to reconcile her modern Australian life with her Czech heritage.
There are occasional steps back in time - to the Czech uprising in 1968; to WW2 Britain and pre-war Prague. These steps back allow the reader to piece together the nature of the relationships between the two halves of the family and to see how they came to be living on opposite sides of the world. But the final piece of the puzzle only comes into view right at the end in what readers may mistake as an optional Author's note.
This short novel is devastatingly beautiful and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I think it has a lot to do with the humanity of the characters - good people who made sacrifices for their loved ones and who deserved more happiness in their lives. Partly it is to do with the ordinary details of lives - the wooden sled, the gherkins, the ocarina in the shape of a little bird. Maybe it was the legends and folk tales. And maybe it was the perfection with which each little bit of the picture came into focus at just the right time. There's nothing dramatic or showy, there's no flowery writing, it is just that the novel is able to capture the heart without the text even being noticed.
In amongst the personal story, there are big themes. There is hope and resignation; the passage of time and the fleetingness of a human life; the relentless erosion of one generation by the next; the gaps that are left by absent family members; migration and belonging and assimilation; homesickness; frustrated ambition... The list goes on.
There Was Still Love is so full and achieves so much in so few words. It is as perfect a novel as you could hope to find.
When The Night Comes has clearly had a lot of time and love invested in its making. Favel Parrett has travelled to Antarctica, Macquarie Island and Heard Island. She has researched the history of Australia’s Antarctic ships and interviewed many who had sailed on them. It is clear that Favel Parrett is passionate.
It’s sad, then, that this passion has produced a rather lacklustre novel. It is never clear exactly what the focus is. At first, we have a series of first person narratives told by Isla, a young girl who has moved with her mother and brother to Tasmania when her mother’s marriage breaks down. Initially there are privations, but as her mother finds her feet these ease. For two summers, the family is joined by Bo, a Dane who works as a cook on the Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan. Some sections, though, follow Bo on board the Nella Dan and back to his former life in Denmark and his friendship with Soren, one of his fellow cooks. And then there’s an ending that suggests the ship is the star. This lack of a clear focus makes everything feel like backstory with no main story.
The sections themselves are told in a staccato fashion, self complete but sequential. Some of them are quite good when considered as individual pieces of flash fiction. The trouble is, they don’t cohere as a whole. It never feels like one, single book but always like several pieces tacked together despite Bo and Isla seemingly writing in the same voice. The language is very basic and mostly confined to facts; there is little introspection or interpretation. We do not ever really learn how the characters relate to one another. The only real exception to this is the affection felt by Bo for Soren. Bo gives heavy hints that he felt love for Soren and this makes for an interesting contrast to the unstated but implied relationship between Bo and Isla’s mother. For the most part, the depth is missing and the novel feels thin and two-dimensional.
By the end of the novel, we are expected to accept that the protagonists have a love for the Nella Dan to the extent that they have an emotional involvement in the ship’s fate. It feels like a leap too far. We needed to be shown the love, not just told of it.
The feeling of place, particularly in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic, isn’t quite there. The descriptions of Hobart early on in the book are better but it still feels as though individual locations have been summoned rather than whole communities. In parts, it is too easy to lose track of whether a scene is set in Hobart or Denmark. When Australian references pop up, they seem to jar.
On the rare occasion that an attempt is made to break away from the monotone – e.g. the section near the end written in second person – it feels forced and artificial. There is one very strange section right before the last one that feels really incongruous, repetitive and doesn’t seem to add to the whole.
When The Night Comes is a short novel that reads quickly. It’s not a bad novel; the failings are not enormous, but they aren’t really balanced by the good aspects. Following on from Past The Shallows is a difficult ask, but this was never going to be the answer. ***00