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Alice to Prague by Tanya Heaslip

In her charming memoir, Alice to Prague, Tanya Heaslip recounts her adventures from her childhood in a cattle station in central Australia to her solitary exploration of Europe and life-changing experiences as a teacher in the Czech Republic.

The memoir commences in the year 1972, where Heaslip recalls working with her stockman father (“The Boss”) and younger siblings, Brett and M’Lis. Heaslip writes that amidst all the sweat and toil under the hot Australian sun, fiction and fantasy continued to fuel her childhood self. Adventure called to her from overseas. Seventeen years later, in 1989, Heaslip is a twenty-eight-year-old backpacker in Europe, staying with her friend Michael in London before returning back broke to her law firm in Alice Springs. In 1993, after making enough money as a lawyer, she determinedly seeks to return to Europe, the land of her childhood dreams. With the help of a mutual colleague, she gets in touch with a Darwin-based barrister, Peter Barr, who once taught in the Czech Republic. Her first destination is Sedlčany, an industrial town that, to her dismay, bears no resemblance to the fairytale land of her fancy.

Heaslip’s writing is spirited, fresh, honest, and whimsical, buttressed with vivid and lyrical portrayals of the architectural and cultural landscapes of the Czech Republic. She leaves no stone unturned in describing her emotions, loneliness, and thoughts in boldly facing challenge after challenge as a new teacher at a Czech high school. She reveals that, not knowing a word of Czech, she gradually learned how to communicate confidently with her colleagues, students, and friends.

Furthermore, Heaslip interweaves her own journeys with reflections on the sociopolitical events and movements that rocked each nation in East Europe. Although she laments the loss of sacredness and historical “magic” that once characterised the Old World of Europe, she remains optimistic. There is hope in the enduring tapestry of Europe’s rich culture despite undergoing various transformations and divisions. Architecture, culture, and tradition constitute these profound imprints of national belonging. The entire memoir is peppered with Czech vocabulary, at once immersing the reader in the paneláky (“housing estates”) and palaces embedded in Heaslip’s reminiscences, and the entire history of the Czech people.

Heaslip’s musings also demonstrate the value of music in storytelling and bridging cultural and linguistic divides. She poetically describes the wistful, patriotic melodies of Bedřich Smetana, Antonin Dvorák, and Josef Suk, and acknowledges the significance of the great Bohemian writer Franz Kafka and dissident writer and politician Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic. References to Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland imbue her writing with nostalgia, while a brief nod to George Orwell aptly conveys her wariness of the legacy of totalitarianism, given that the Czech Republic were still transitioning from a communist regime to a democratic society.

I highly recommend this delightful book to readers interested in travel, history, and culture. Alice to Prague is not only a powerful story about friendship, beauty, adventure, but also a wholehearted tribute to the cultural monuments and the resilient spirit of the Czech people.

Reviewer: Azariah Alfante

Allen & Unwin, $32.99


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