When the Night Comes is Favel Parrett’s anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed Miles Franklin Award shortlisted debut, Past the Shallows (my review here). Written in what can now be considered her signature sparse prose and ultra-short chapters, it is the story of a relationship between a young girl, Isla, and Bo, a Danish cook on the Antarctic exploration and supply ship Nella Dan. Laced with nostalgia and melancholy, Parrett takes us back into familiar territory: Tasmania in the mid to late 1980s, a broken family, an exploration of how young children are influenced by the adults in—or absent from—their lives. It is a much ‘quieter’ story than her debut; there is far less narrative drive.
The story opens with Isla moving from Victoria to Hobart, Tasmania, with her depressed mum and her unnamed younger brother, sailing across Bass Strait on a passenger ship in a storm. They are moving because her mother’s marriage with Isla’s father has broken down. Her mum is aloof and ‘absent’ from the story almost as much as her father is. The fact she never names her brother is a sign of just how disconnected Isla is.
The Hobart she finds herself in is all grey, but Isla’s spirits lift when she sees a red ship docked:
RED. Nothing but red. A bright red wall of steel. … A patch of sunlight broke through the clouds, hit the red bow, just a tiny beam. For a second there was nothing else but the words written clear, white against red: Nella Dan. I said the words over and over in my head. Nella Dan. Nella Dan. Nella Dan. They made my heart beat out faster.
She certainly stands out against the grey rain and the black River Derwent. And there is more here, for a man is waving to her from the deck of the ship. ‘Someone could see me.’ It is a simple, almost throwaway line, but it contains multitudes, and we begin to understand Isla’s fragile state of mind. The adults in her life have largely abandoned her, and here is someone seeing her. It’s deft and subtle characterisation. Isla’s mum befriends Bo, and the ship becomes a place of safety for Isla. Afraid of the dark, she finds on the Nella Dan, ‘it was never night’.
Isla’s chapters are told in first person, past tense. She is a woman in her forties, looking back at her childhood. Strangely, she narrates these slight vignette-style chapters as a child would rather than an adult. Bo’s chapters, meanwhile, are told in first person, present tense, and largely work well. Both are very reserved characters, even wary in the case of Isla. When Bo returns to Denmark in the southern winters, he finds himself lonely and wanting to return to Hobart.
There are thoughtfully constructed parallels between Isla and Bo’s two narratives throughout. Both narratives see characters suffer losses at similar points, and as a storm at sea frames Isla’s opening, so too does a storm at sea frame Bo’s opening:
The water hits hard again and we pitch over. I tense my core but I’m back against the bulkhead, sliding up towards the ceiling. I feel Nella shudder, grind her metal teeth. My bones vibrate against her. I try to relax, keep calm – it’s fine – but there’s this creaking, this screeching, like every bolt that holds her together is coming loose. Coming apart.
There is also a lovely and subtle symmetry between the opening and ending, with two voyages being made to islands. Indeed, islands, both physical and metaphorical, permeate the story. Although close to her unnamed brother, the aptly named Isla cannot bring herself to name him, and she is cut off from her mum, whose relationship difficulties she is too young to understand. Bo comes from an island in Denmark, and is drawn to both Tasmania and Macquarie Island; he is also drawn to Isla’s mum, who sits by herself at night, but most of their relationship is withheld from us. There’s an underlying hint that islands can be dangerous. One of her school teachers asks Isla’s class what the most dangerous thing at sea is: the answer is land, running aground, on a reef or rocks. You get the feeling not only ships that might run aground but people do, too.
And what of Nella Dan herself? Parrett holds a clear love for the little red ship, and this love permeates the story. When she is due to depart on the final voyage, she doesn’t want to leave Hobart, as if she senses a dire fate awaits her in the Southern Ocean. (There is a section of pages after the story with recollections of the ship by those who sailed on her.)
When the Night Comes is a bit like an iceberg: so much of it is underwater and unseen. For all the lovely characterisation, it feels like there’s something missing. Some of Isla’s chapters did not feel connected to the whole. Is this a clever play on the theme of islands, I wonder, or a lack of cohesion? I suppose that’s the risk in writing a story about disconnection. That said, I had the feeling the whole was more than the sum of the parts. There is a lovely resolution, quietly moving, and there is much to ponder about the unseen, untold story. It will be interesting to see where Parrett goes from here.
When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett
245 pages (plus pages on Nella Dan)