Review: Katie Dobbson Favel Parrett

Coming in from the Cold

‘Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own,’ Tove Ditlevsen wrote in Childhood (1967), the first volume in her autobiographical trilogy, an account of a lonely, impoverished Copenhagen upbringing. It’s a grim assessment, one that I returned to as I immersed myself in the world of Favel Parrett’s fiction. Across three novels, the Australian author’s concern has been the vulnerability of children, dependent upon the mercy of adults as they navigate an inscrutable, forbidding world.

Set in a small fishing town on Bruny Island off the coast of Tasmania, Parrett’s debut novel Past the Shallows (2011) is narrated from the perspective of two brothers subject to the whims of a violent, alcoholic father; their mother died in a car accident in an attempt to escape with them to a better life. Parrett’s second novel, When the Night Comes (2014), opens in familiar territory: a mother fleeing a tumultuous marriage on a ferry in the night, two children in tow. As the family makes a new start in Hobart, and twelve year-old Isla quietly assumes responsibility for her younger brother − fixing him meals, getting him home from school safely − it becomes apparent that the children’s mother is a remote, emotionally absent figure.

Concerned with troubled familial legacies, both novels have an air of the Gothic. Where in the first the dramatic coastal landscape inspires dread and awe, in her follow-up Parrett turns to Hobart’s architecture to underscore the siblings’ vulnerability: heading home through the cobbled lanes, Isla imagines the old stones are blood-soaked, that ghosts are clawing at their clothes. The city, with its dark colonial legacy, becomes a metaphor for the burden of inheritance:

It had never been cleared away, what sadness people left behind. …It was all still here, waiting and heavy. The old stone city was stuck, and we were all here, trapped inside.

In Parrett’s first novel, kindness shown by a compassionate recluse, George Fuller, momentarily leavened Harry’s plight. For Isla, it is Bo, her mother’s new partner, who offers an extended reprieve. A chef on the Antarctica supply ship Nella Dan, Bo provides sustenance both gastronomical and emotional, and symbolisesthe possibility of escaping the narrow edict of fate, navigating a more hopeful future. Alternating between the perspective of Isla and Bo, Parrett’s spare prose relaxes into impressionistic mode. And yet experience has taught Isla to remain vigilant: ‘the past [is] there like an owl watching us from the rusty rooftops… [trying] to take our warmth – steal our joy – take the light away.’

Parrett’s latest novel There Was Still Love continues to explore the vexed theme of inheritance from a child’s perspective. One of its primary narrators is Luděk, a young boy whose father is dead, and whose mother Alena is away, touring the world performing with the Black Light Theatre. It is Prague in 1980, and Luděk lives with his widowed grandmother (or Babi) Eva, who does her best to protect him from the knowledge he is being held as a surety by the state, so his mother will not seek political asylum while abroad.

Trapped behind the Iron Curtain in Prague, Parrett seems to have arrived at an archetypal vision of confined childhood. And yet running through the cobbled streets, Luděk feels more tedium than terror. No fool for the ‘baby stories’ of Prague’s statues coming alive at night, as he heads across Charles Bridge he hurls insults at them: ‘Hey Sleepy! Hey Hunchback! Hey Squint Eyes!’ Though there’s an element of compensatory bravado to all this, it’s clear we are a long way from the unremittingly bleak world of Past the Shallows, which prompted comparisons to the work of Cormac McCarthy. Luděk’s irreverent narration, more of the comic order of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, is a testament to his grandmother’s efforts to ameliorate his fate: ’The world can go to hell for all he cares because Babi is waiting for him in the warm flat. His whole world.’

An only child, Luděk has a cousin who he has seen only in photographs: red-headed Malá Liška (‘Little Fox’) is younger than him (‘she probably couldn’t run around the streets by herself yet’) and lives in Melbourne with her grandfather Bill and grandmother Máňa. Máňa is Eva’s identical twin sister, who fled Czechoslovakia in 1938, during the early days of German occupation, migrating to Australia via London. For reasons never made clear, Malá Liška’s parents are also absent, and her grandparents’ apartment is her ‘whole world.’

Alternating between Melbourne and Prague, between Malá Liška’s first person and Luděk’s third person narration, the novel is constructed with an elegant symmetry, verbal and thematic repetitions either side of the familial tree. Though it unfolds primarily from the children’s perspectives, it is as much the story of the women who make the sacrifice of looking after them, and their daily efforts to keep the cold wind of history out of their grandchildren’s lives. A neat structural device that anchors the novel, the twinned narrative, spanning 1980 to 1981, is interleaved by four brief chapters, focalised through the adult characters of Alena, Bill, Eva and Máňa; these return, in a non-linear fashion, to the traumatic events of the twentieth century that shaped the twin sisters’ lives.

Children, of course, are often unaware of their position within larger social and historical structures, but they absorb nuance at the level of the quotidian. Parrett has shared in interviews that a jar of gherkins was the madeleine that unlocked memories of her Czech grandmother, who fled from Prague as a teenager, inspiring the novel. Throughout There Was Still Love, food is a language that children understand. In one chapter, Malá Liška watches her grandmother prepare apricot dumplings, portioning them into freezer bags of six, so they can later be shared − two each, ‘everything even’ − between her, her grandmother and grandpa Bill (formerly Vilém). Although Bill is a qualified toolmaker, in Australia he can only find insecure work as a night watchman at a factory. The night he comes home and announces he has been made redundant, Máňa serves him six dumplings. Without exposition or analysis, Parrett deftly portrays Malá Liška’s apprehension of her grandparents’ economic precarity as migrants, their resourcefulness and enduring love.

While Máňa rations food in Melbourne, in Prague Eva spends interminable hours shopping, queuing to find ingredients in the face of periodic shortages, cooking and serving carefully apportioned meals. As Parrett employs the device of the doubled narrative to explore the sisters’ twinned experiences of oppression and exile, there are convergences. Seen through the lens of Luděk’s boredom and insatiable appetite, domestic minutia has political freight: with the employment of most adults under communism, grandmothers were often expected to assume the burden of childcare, taking this addition to their domestic labours in their stride. A scene in Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies parodied the sacrifice of ambitions and appetites that Czechoslovakian women were expected to make for the benefit of the collective: at a banquet for party officials, the two young female leads stuff mounds of food into their mouths, stomping on the leftover dishes in their high heels, before resetting the table with a doll-like obedience. What the censors found most reprehensible was the waste of food.

Chytilová’s film was part of the Czechoslovak New Wave of cinema that flourished in the 1960s, a period of liberalisation that culminated in the Prague Spring. Parrett’s novel offers a fleeting sketch of 1968, as Luděk’s mother Alena, dances with her new lover (a writer) to the Rolling Stones. But it is through Eva’s eyes that we see the Soviet tanks rolling in to suppress the revolution, marking the beginning of a period of ‘normalisation.’ Throughout the novel, the twin sisters are associated not with the pop-filtered glamour of revolution but with the reign of the Soviet union, routinely compared in the children’s narration to concrete and stone (both women have ‘stone faces that could forge through anything’; Máňa’s feet are ‘solid like concrete slabs’). As Soviet women, and then again as grandmothers, their labours are taken for granted, their voices muted: looking at her grandmother, Malá Liška sees ‘a projection, a silent film.’ On first impression an unassuming domestic fiction, the novel emerges as quietly feminist: turning its gaze to a generation of Soviet women and bringing them, and their unpaid labours, into view.

Parrett turns to the medium of screen to highlight the censorship and propaganda imposed upon the women. While in Melbourne, Máňa is free to cry over repeated screenings of David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago (based on Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel which was banned in the Soviet Union). In Prague Eva is stuck with black and white images of farming co-operatives, workers smiling ‘under a shining sun’.

A scene set at the 1980 Spartakiáda, a mass televised event featuring synchronised gymnastics, makes the panopticon scope of state surveillance explicit. The event is essentially an exercise in exalting the Soviet citizen, an unseen commentator inciting the audience, in ‘concrete surround sound’, to ‘look at our women – their physical condition, their fitness, their athleticism.’ A bored Luděk is dragged along by Babi with his visiting Aunty Máňa and Uncle Bill, who have spent years saving up money for the visit. As the performers move into formation on the stadium floor, ‘a giant creature made up of thousands of purple and white women,’ Luděk thinks of his free-spirited mother, how she hates organised gymnastics: ‘she just wanted to dance.’ Beside him his Babi and Aunty Máňa are enraptured.

Viewing the Czech experience through the lens of gender, Parrett uses intergenerational nuance to bring a complicated history into focus. Rather than dismiss the older women’s susceptibility to patriotic spectacle, Parrett takes the long view. Later in the novel, a vignette from the perspective of Máňa as a teenage girl, proudly participating in the 1938 Spartakiáda event, places the sisters’ allegiance in the context of the Munich Agreement, which had recently allowed German annexation of the Sudetenland: ‘the world has let us down, thrown us away, but we stand tall.’ Later that same day Máňa’s father, sensing wholescale occupation of Czechoslovakia is imminent, makes the fateful decision that she should flee.

Continuing her thematic preoccupation with vulnerable siblings, in this third novel Parrett examines the legacy in adulthood of childhoods marked by fear and flight. For Luděk and Malá Liška, there is an opacity to their grandmothers’ childhood experiences (in one scene Luděk thinks, watching his Babi’s eyes: ‘it was like he could see a movie there, one that she was watching too.’) Having endured Nazism and Stalinism, Eva remains hypervigilant, a woman of few words. Safely at home in Melbourne, Máňa still feels dread every time the phone rings. During Máňa and Bill’s visit to Prague, Luděk tries to eavesdrop on the women’s whispered conversations, but is thwarted by the ‘dumb, flat song’ of their English. With two simple adjectives, Parrett captures how a child processes living in the shadow of something he cannot define.

When Alena tours Melbourne with the Black Light Theatre, it emerges that the twins have been plotting her possible defection. The troupe’s ‘beloved manager’, a communist state spy, falls ill, enabling Máňa to throw an impromptu party for the performers in her apartment. Enchanted by the sight of glamorous Alena on the dancefloor, Malá Liška notices her niece pulling away from her lover, Aleš, as he reaches out for her. In this infinitesimal gesture, Parrett entwines the political and the personal: considering seeking political asylum, a pregnant Alena fears she will be restrained by further maternal responsibilities. From the stereo blasts the Rolling Stones ‘Under my Thumb’. With the intergenerational recurrence of the theme of flight, it becomes apparent just how much the older women are prepared to endure to insulate their descendants from traumatic political realities. Alena’s defection would mean state punishment for Eva; for Máňa, permanent exile.

Separated by the events of the Second World War, and then kept apart by the Cold War, the twin sisters retain a deep nostalgic bond, but there are inevitable resentments. Parrett renders the fracture in an intimate, lived way. A visit to Melbourne in 1981, Eva’s first time overseas, proves overwhelming: after a trip to a supermarket, she retreats to her room, taking the proliferation of consumer choice as a personal slight. And yet Máňa and Bill’s Melbourne apartment, furnished with wall-hangings of Prague, belies their ambivalent longing for their homeland.Through Malá Liška, we glimpse the hard realities of the migrant experience: along for a trip to the market, she does not understand the racist slur flung at her grandmother, but she apprehends the tear spilling down ‘her soft, powdered cheek’.

Braiding episodes like this, which culminate in a telling detail, Parrett’s novel is a feat of editing, imparting its thematic concerns with a cinematic economy. Yet like any novel that leans on the innocence of a child protagonist for poignancy, it risks erring into sentimental territory. A novel that successfully avoided this fate is Carson McCullers’ 1946 A Member of the Wedding, in which twelve year-old Frankie Adams’ fantasies of the adult world played out against the backdrop of the Second World War. In her domestic gothic, McCullers expertly walked the high-wire between humour and pathos, landing her heroine’s inevitable disillusionment so the reader intimately felt the blow.

There Was Still Love is a novel of a different order. Eschewing the heightened gothic mode that propelled Past the Shallows to its tragic conclusion, its tone is nostalgic and consoling, its fragmented structure suggesting the work of elegiac recall. Malá Liška, whose narration occasionally switches to a retrospective adult mode, is the character most closely informed by the author’s own experiences with her grandparents. Perhaps by virtue of this, she feels slight, barely affected; when she marches around her grandparents’ apartment like a soldier, ignorant to their experiences of war, she seems unlikely to be headed, like Frankie Adams, for a convulsive coming of age. From the novel’s outset, it is the character of Luděk who promises more dramatic potential. A mere child trapped behind the Iron Curtain, he sublimates his fate with ingenuous swagger: ‘invisibility is his superpower.’ But as his surreptitious missions, running through the streets of Prague, develop over the course of the novel into an extended metaphor for his path from innocence to understanding, Parrett privileges poetic resonance over high drama. Luděk spends a ‘month of Saturdays’ searching for an Atlas statue that Aunty Máňa has told him about. When he finally finds it, he apprehends the heroic nature of his grandmother’s sacrifice: ‘Babi held it all so that he did not have to. Babi held it all so he could stay free.’

Tidily unpacking her symbolism for the reader in this way, Parrett edges her novel toward a Young Adult sensibility. While her short, uncomplicated sentences ring true to a child’s perspective, the narration now and then betrays a sense of an author staying safely within her range. The sketch of the 1968 Prague Spring, focalised through adult Alena, skirts a line between platitudinous and restrained: ‘And maybe everything is going to be different now – this spring of hope, this wave of change’. Yet over the course of There Was Still Love, it becomes clear why reviewers so frequently remark upon the ‘deceptive simplicity’ of Parrett’s writing. As she alternates between the limited perspectives of Luděk and Malá Liška, the controlled attenuations of her prose allow her to attain quiet flares of clarity. Observing the similarity between Babi and Aunty Máňa’s ‘strong angular faces,’ Luděk makes this spare appraisal: ‘they were not delicate but they were useful. They could withstand a lot.’

In Parrett’s tender third novel, childhood is less a liability than the perfect cover: allowing her child protagonists to bear witness to their grandmothers’ resilience; but also to surreptitiously track behind it, glimpsing ambivalence, vulnerability, fear, cunning, and even joy. From across their Prague apartment, Luděk overhears his Babi: a ‘sudden bolt of laughter she could no longer hold in. Uncontrolled. Uncensored. Real.’

Published October 6, 2020
Part of Emerging Critics 2020: Essays by the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Keyvan Allahyari, Bryan Andy, Katie Dobbs, Cher Tan and Prithvi Varatharajan. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2020 essays →
Katie Dobbs

Katie Dobbs is a recipient of the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics Fellowship. A writer...

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