‘When the Night Comes’ is Favel Parrett’s second novel, following the success of ‘Past the Shallows’, which was short-listed for the Miles Franklin in 2012, and which I glowingly reviewed here.
The story is told by two first person narrators—the young girl, Isla, and the Danish chef and sailor, Bo.
It begins on a ship with Isla narrating as she, her younger brother, and her mother journey across Bass Strait to their new lives in Tasmania. The children are alone in the cabin while their mother smokes on the deck upstairs, and we begin to sense the mother’s neglect, albeit in a benign way, of her children.
The family settles in Battery Point and for people who know Hobart, like myself, there are plenty of familiar haunts—Kelly’s Steps, Mona Street, Hampden Road, Salamanca. Isla’s mother is largely absent, in body and mind, as she works and seems to be battling her own issues although we never know exactly what they are. Isla and her brother are left to their own devices, and Isla assumes the older sister/carer role, as they get themselves to and from school.
It is while waiting for the ferry on Hobart docks that Isla first sees the Nella Dan, the Danish icebreaker which used to visit Hobart on the way to Antarctica in the 1980’s.
‘RED. Nothing but red. A bright red wall of steel.
A ship, as tall as a building, as big as the sky …’
Bo, a Danish cook on the Nella Dan, becomes Isla’s mother’s partner, and so enters their lives.
‘When we got inside there was a giant in our house. He was sitting at the kitchen table, his chair pushed out so that his long legs could fit.’
Isla tells her story as little vignettes in a detached, accepting way, although she doesn’t seem to understand everything that is going on around her. Her mother buys a house in West Hobart and the children start at a good school. Isla tells stories of kind but sad teachers and the moving story of the death of one of her brother’s friends. She also talks about Bo, with whom she develops a bond through their shared love of the sea and their quiet, introspective natures.
‘Bo put his face to the earth, breathed in deep and he stayed like that for ages. When he looked up, the grass had made imprints on his face and he said, ‘I love grass!’ It made us laugh, we didn’t know why. ‘I love it,’ he said again and he rolled over and got up. His white T-shirt was all stained by the freshly cut grass.
‘I feel like I haven’t smelt grass since I was a boy.’
‘I get hay fever,’ my brother said and he rubbed his eyes, then started to sneeze. Bo took us inside and he washed my brother’s face with a hot face washer.
‘Do you think your T-shirt is wrecked?’ my brother asked when he had stopped sneezing. ‘Mum says grass doesn’t come out.’
Bo looked down at his stained T-shirt, brown with dirt and green with grass.
‘It’s perfect,’ he said. ‘My T-shirt is perfect.’
Bo, who also narrates the story, talks of Denmark and his time on the Nella Dan—of life aboard the ship; of his friendship with Soren, his cabinmate; of preparing meals of pork sandwiches and pickled cabbage; of drinking and playing music. He talks, too, of the Antarctic:
‘The sky cloudless. Giant white cliffs running on and on, then out to the horizon, icebergs lined up for all of time, blue and brilliant white taking up the whole scene. Every blue that there is—that exists. One million shakes of blue and white. The scale of it all measured against me, one man standing here. Just one man, small and breathless.’
One of the things I loved about this novel was that the reader wasn’t told everything. Much of the story is in the subtext and there are gaps that the reader must fill in for themselves. For example, Isla’s mother is an enigmatic presence throughout the narrative, and we sense her more than know her. We never hear why she moved the family to Tasmania, and I’ve made up my own story for that—that she was escaping domestic violence—but I could be wrong.
Like ‘Past the Shallows’, there’s a simplicity to the writing but also a lyricism and poetry, such as in this paragraph where Bo talks about the watch that belonged to his friend, Soren:
‘”When I hold the watch in the palm of my hand like this,” and he showed me his open hand, the face of the watch right in the centre, “I can feel the ticking through my skin—and it’s like the heartbeat of a little bird when you hold one, a pulse that you might miss if you are thinking about other things. If you are not concentrating. And I keep thinking, shouldn’t a watch be more fragile than a man?”
This story has more similarities with Past the Shallows—it’s told through a child’s innocent eyes; it involves the sea; and it’s set in Tasmania. It’s a quieter story, but there are losses for Bo and the young Isla, which we see through Isla’s partially comprehending eyes.
It’s an easy story to read, one that leaves you sighing at the end after you’ve got to know and like the characters—Isla and Bo, the shadowy mother, the kindly teachers. But you especially come to love and respect the lumbering icebreaker, Nella Dan. Favel herself has described this novel as a love story to the ship.
I had the pleasure of meeting Favel at the Bookcaffé, and listening to her speak of her research for this novel, which involved spending time in Scandinavia where she sought out former sailors from the real Nella Dan, and sailing the Southern Ocean aboard the Antarctic icebreaker, Aurora Australis.
This is another review for the AWW Challenge 2014—I think it’s #12, but I’ve lost count!