When the Night Comes
In the author’s note at the end of When the Night Comes, the follow-up to her Miles Franklin-shortlisted Past the Shallows, Favel Parrett tells the true story of the Nella Dan, the polar vessel around which the novel revolves. She writes of her own trips to Macquarie Island, where it was scuttled in 1987; to Antarctica; and to Denmark, from where most of its crew hailed. She describes how treasured the “little red ship” remains to these people, and how much she wanted to do the ship justice with this book.
She should feel no anxiety on this score. A more lovingly crafted tribute to the home away from home that ships can be for their crews is hard to imagine. Indeed, her urge to commemorate gives When the Night Comes a roseate glow. Told alternately from the perspective of young Isla in Hobart, and solemn Danish sailor Bo from the Nella Dan, it chronicles the friendship that grows between the two when Bo gets to know Isla’s mother.
And it is a touching story. But a story about quietly dignified, ordinary people needs something extraordinary about it to keep it from being dull, something to give it propulsion or depth, and ultimately When the Night Comes doesn’t offer enough of either.
Perhaps it is because Isla and Bo are kindred spirits that their voices are so similar, but this similarity means that the register rarely shifts. For both Isla and Bo the world is full of wonder. This allows Parrett to write some lovely lyrical passages. But by having them constantly awed by the world around them, the reader is kept on the surface of things, as much as Parrett tries to inject poignancy and poetry into everything they do (“Bo liked to walk and keep on walking. He liked the smell of wet grass. He made us pancakes…”). There are brief moments of contrast, of darker forces lurking, most interestingly perhaps in the haunting experienced by Isla and her brother from the ghosts of Tasmania’s colonial past. But Isla and Bo remain oddly distant characters, and when tragedy befalls them, we don’t feel their grief as keenly as we should.
When the Night Comes is a heartfelt novel about how a girl’s grey life is brightened by a “little red ship” and a kind stranger. No doubt many readers will be swept up and carried along by this story. Others may feel left behind. SH
Hachette, 256pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Favel Parrett, When the Night Comes". Subscribe here.