Title: Alice to Prague
Author: Tanya Heaslip
Published: May 6th 2019
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Rating: 4 stars
In 1994, with a battered copy of Let’s Go Europe stuffed in her backpack, Tanya Heaslip left her safe life as a lawyer in outback Australia and travelled to the post-communist Czech Republic.
Dismissing concerns from family and friends that her safety and career were at risk, she arrived with no teaching experience whatsoever, to work at a high school in a town she’d never heard of, where the winters are frigid and plunge to sub-zero temperatures.
During her childhood on an isolated cattle station in Central Australia, Tanya had always dreamed of adventure and romance in Europe but the Czech Republic was not the stuff of her dreams. On arrival, however, she falls headlong into misadventures that change her life forever.
This land of castles, history and culture opened up to her and she to it. In love with Prague and her people, particularly with the charismatic Karel, who takes her into his home, his family and as far as he can into his heart, Tanya learns about lives very different to hers.
Alice to Prague is a bittersweet story of a search for identity, belonging and love, set in a time, a place and with a man that fill Tanya’s life with contradictions.
Alice to Prague, written by Tanya Heaslip, is the true account of a how a young woman from the bush traded her life in the outback for a new world of travel, adventure, culture and love – in Prague. A truthful, emotional and meaningful memoir, Alice to Prague is a book that I found engaging and inspiring.
The outback runs through the author of this memoir, Tanya Heaslip’s veins. Growing up in the harsh wilds of central Australia, Tanya’s love for the land is innate. However, after a building a career as a lawyer, Tanya gets itchy feet and there is a new hunger that consumes her – to travel aboard.
‘But I knew there was another life. And I’d decided it for myself – overseas, in those lands of magic. Until then I would think about it and imagine it and tell myself stories about it.’
The travel bug sure caught Tanya Heaslip. An opportunity to teach abroad in the post communist nation of the Czech Republic ensues. Despite opposition from her friends and family back home, Tanya ignores their concerns and she makes her journey to the other side of the world. The shock upon arrival is abundantly clear, from her experiences at the airport, to her first evening in her new home. The town where she is to live and teach is still clearly suffering from the effects of communist rule. The locals are suspicious and downcast. Tanya grapples with homesickness, illness and she experiences extreme culture shock.
Grappling with the language, culture, social practices, weather and much more, Tanya trudges on. Eventually, Tanya sees the light and the inner beauty of her new home begins the shine bright. With stunning buildings, monuments, castles, palaces, cobbled streets and hidden cultural treasures, there is so much history to absorb. Tanya laps up all the Czech Republic has to offer. Along the way she builds many strong friendship bonds and she connects with a local man, Karel, who takes Tanya under his wing. But Tanya and Karel’s lives, as well as their expectations, are clearly not aligned and so begins a tussle of emotions as these two beating hearts try to come together. In the process Tanya learns about her desires, priorities and identity.
I was first drawn to Alice to Prague for a couple of reasons. The cover immediately seemed to sing to me. The deep contrast between our land down under is depicted, the scorching red earth is front and centre, which is juxtaposed with an upside down snapshot of a set of European style buildings from the Czech Republic. This image is an excellent symbol for the events that define this memoir. Spoken from the heart, the author details the tussle of emotions she experienced between her love for her outback home and the majestic city of Prague. It is a stark contrast, but Tanya Heaslip makes the reader see how it is possible to love and connect on different levels to two vastly different countries.
‘I talked to my friends and family constantly about Prague – its beauty, mystery, magic – and in some strange way felt more connected to Prague than I did to Alice.’
If you have ever considered abandoning it all, packing your suitcase and travelling abroad, this is a memoir that you should not miss. I admired Tanya Heaslip from the get-go. Despite the protests and concerns of her loved ones back home and the rocky start she was faced with during her early days in the Czech Republic, she soldiered on and she found her new life rewarding. I will take away this aspect of the memoir from my reading, it definitely sparked an strong desire in me to one day book that ticket and explore Prague.
For those who love their European history, Tanya Heaslip peppers her memoir with plenty of glorious travel sequences and observations of her life in Prague. She provides us with some stunning snapshots of the local buildings, key sites and local scenery. In addition, expect to experience all the sensations the Czech Republic has to offer, from the sights, sounds, smells, to the delectable local cuisine. Many people opened up their homes and lives to Tanya during her stay. We learn a great deal about the common customs, culture and language of this country. This aspect of the book was very much the eye opener, I knew next to little about this European destination.
‘By the end of the second week I was aching for the morning light on the Vltava that greeted me every day as I headed to work. The dark span of Charles Bridge at night. The jangling sound of trams along narrow cobbled streets. The sweeping lines of Renaissance buildings on the riverfront. Art Nouveau cafes overflowing with scholars debating culture, history and politics.’
A significant proportion of Alice to Prague is devoted to relationships. We watch on as Tanya forges a number of key friendships and links with the locals, which is referenced in her Epilogue. However, Alice to Prague is much more about the search for identity, love, connection, belonging and meaning. Tanya falls in love with a local man, Karel, but not only do the couple have to overcome the barriers of language and culture, they also battle matters of the heart. Karel has reservations based on his past experiences, which means he is unwilling to fully commit himself to Tanya. This sends Tanya into quite a state and she tries to overcome her yearning for a man who can never truly love her the way she wants to be loved. It is a moment of self realisation and the reader is there every heartbreaking step of the way.
In terms of personal preferences, I am a big fan of outback based memoirs and I would have loved to have heard more about this aspect of Tanya’s life. From the parting moments of Alice to Prague, I do know that Tanya Heaslip has since settled in a place that is very familiar to me – the Margaret River wine region of Western Australia. I would welcome another memoir from this engaging storyteller with open arms, if this is a direction Tanya would be willing to take in a future book.
All in all, I highly recommend this memoir. Alice to Prague offers the reader a soul searching rendition of finding your true desire and that spark in life that makes you feel more alive. Touching, insightful and exalting, fans of memoirs should not pass on this one.
Alice to Prague by Tanya Heaslip was published on 6th May 2019 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Alice to Prague, Tanya Heaslip, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Allen & Unwin for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Alice to Prague is book #71 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge