Favel Parrett, When the Night Comes (Hachette Australia 2014)
Favel Parrett’s first novel, Past the Shallows, published in 2011, was a hard act to follow. In When the Night Comes, her second, she moves to a bigger world, out past Tasmanian waters to Antarctica and Scandinavia, and into a delicate, tender relationship between an adult man and a girl just entering her teens.
I’m tempted to say that it’s actually two novels.
First there’s the one described in the author’s endnote. This is a celebration of the Norwegian ship, Nella Dan, a real ship whose history is sketched in the note, along with affectionate quotes from a number of people who sailed in ‘the little red ship’. If such a celebration had been written by, say, Neal Stephenson, it might have included bravura passages dramatising the ship’s inner workings – the heat and noise of the engine room, the pinging wheelhouse, the compartmentalisation of the hull. But this is not that kind of celebration. Here the engine is background noise that helps the sailors sleep; we spend time in the ship’s kitchen, but no ink is spilled on describing the stoves; if the size of the crew may be mentioned I don’t remember it. In fact, apart from its bright red paint and its size – sometimes surprisingly small, sometimes surprisingly big – we don’t have much sense of the ship as a physical thing at all. What we do have is the way all the characters respond to it, to her, as a dependable almost-maternal, almost-comradely, presence. Almost those things, because Nella Dan never really emerges as a character in her own right.
The other novel is the one I read, and was moved by. In it, the Nella Dan is an interesting setting for part of human story. This story moves between two points of view. The first is that of Isla, 12 or 13 years old, who has recently moved to Hobart with her mother and her younger brother (never known as anything other than ‘my brother’) after their parents’ marriage break-up. A Danish sailor named Bo becomes a regular part of the family. As Isla is completely uninterested in the world of adult relationships, we pretty much have to deduce that Bo and Isla get to spend time together because Bo and Isla’s mother are having a fling, a romance, a domestic relationship of some sort. Bo’s is the other point of view, and we travel with him on the Nella Dan into Antarctic waters.
Dramatic things do happen: each of the main characters has to deal with the violent accidental death of a close friend, for example, and the Nella Dan runs into the perils of the Southern Ocean. But the strength of the book lies in it depiction of the delicate connection between these two people that allows Isla to imagine herself in a much bigger world, and Bo to find sweet companionship. It feels easy, but when you consider we live in a climate where closeness between an adult male and a child not his own is often looked on with deep suspicion, I can only say I’m deeply impressed – and grateful – for what the book offers.
Sadly, my copy was on loan and has been reclaimed by its owner, so I can’t quote anything. Trust me. Favel Parrett writes lucid, supple prose. The book is full of pleasures.
This is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.