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When the Night Comes by Favel ParrettWhen 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

2014

Hachette

245 pages (plus pages on Nella Dan)

ISBN: 9780733626586

Source: purchased

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There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

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Wow.  How can so much be achieved with so little?  That’s the question I’m asking myself after finishing Past the Shallows, Favel Parrett’s stunning debut novel.  The story is told from the dual perspectives of two young brothers, Harry and Miles, who are growing up in a very broken home in a small town on the southern Tasmanian coast, a place described as the end of the earth.  The weather whips up from the arctic full of ice and the storm swells are huge.  We meet Harry first up, and right from the start (p1) we get a clear picture of what ails him and the environment we are in:

Harry stood on the sand and looked down the wide, curved beach of Cloudy Bay.  Everything was clean and golden and crisp, the sky almost violet with the winter light, and he wished that he wasn’t afraid. 

But what is it that he is afraid of?  Is it his brothers going for a surf, or is it the: 

Water that was always there.  Always everywhere.  The sound and the smell and the cold waves making Harry different.  And it wasn’t just because he was the youngest.  He knew the way he felt about the ocean would never leave him now.  It would be there always, right inside him. 

Or does he fear his father?  Whatever it is, both he and Miles are looking for escape.  Their elder brother Joe has moved out (escaping also), and their mother died in a car accident.  Harry and Miles were in the car at the time but survived.  The older Miles tries to piece together his memories of that night as the story unfolds. 

Their father is a tyrant with a secret.  He is an abalone diver who takes Miles out as well as a couple of men from the town on his old boat.  The bank owns the boat and he tries to make ends meet by fishing in protected waters and bringing in undersized abalone.  But any little money he makes goes towards drink and the boys have to look after themselves.      

Joe and Miles go surfing in their spare time and Harry runs along the beach collecting things that they ask him to find, like cuttlefish bones and shark eggs.  Harry doesn’t like the water.  He is too young to go out on the boat with Miles and his father, and he gets sea-sick.  He manages to look after himself while they are out fishing, forging a friendship with George, a man who has been scarred by a horrific accident and lives with his dog, Jake.  It’s the dog who finds Harry one day on the road and Harry follows it home to George.  George looks after Harry and tells him stories about his mother, a mother he struggles to remember. 

Parrett’s writing has been compared to Tim Winton and there are definitely similarities.  There’s the coastal town setting, the broken characters, the sense of being trapped, the surfing scenes.  The writing, too, is similar, albeit even more sparse than recent Winton—as befits the perspective of our child protagonists.  It is lyrical.  There is a wonderful layering as well, with the memories of the car accident threaded through their day-to-day struggles. 

There’s some great writing on surfing, (Parrett surfs herself).  Here’s Miles revelling in the time he can escape from his father: (p135):

The rise and fall of the ocean breathing … He lived for this, for these moments when everything stops except your heart beating and time bends and ripples – moves past your eyes frame by frame and you feel beyond time and before time and no one can touch you. 

There is a heart-rending counterpoint to this a moment later when Miles’s joy is stolen as Joe tells him he is leaving town on the yacht he made himself, sailing off to the South Pacific.  Joe asks Miles to tell Harry because he couldn’t face telling him himself. 

Favel has said in a recent interview that the mentorship she obtained through the Australian Society of Authors was won on her third attempt.  If this isn’t proof that persistence pays, I don’t know what is!  To be mentioned in the same (dare I say) ‘breath’ as Winton was something I was wary of when I started reading.  I thought it would be an unfair comparison – one of our best to a debut novelist.  But whoever made the comparison had good reason.  Perhaps one day there will be other debut Australian authors who are compared to Favel Parrett.  It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.  

Past the Shallows is one of the books on review for August’s ‘First Tuesday Book Club’ on the ABC, along with a favourite classic of mine: Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant The Master and Margarita.  I can’t wait to see what the panel have to say about each.  

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett

Hachette

2011

ISBN: 978033626579

251 pages

Source: personal library, (aka ‘the bookshelf rainbow’)

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