Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2014

When the Night Comes, by Favel Parrett

22043013Favel Parrett is the highly acclaimed author of Past the Shallows so I was interested to see the direction she might take in this, her second novel.  For me, there has to be more than fine writing to make a book worth reading: I’m interested in ideas and/or experimentation, and I want books that make me think in ways I hadn’t thought before.  It’s a tall order for a beginning author to achieve, because these things depend on life experience, wide reading, and an awareness of life beyond the familiar, an awareness that doesn’t just come from the media.   (Especially *up on my soapbox* not the Australian tabloid media, which is shallow, grubby, narcissistic and xenophobic).  Having a go at writing the kind of book I like also takes courage because it’s risky.  Readers like me are tolerant of debut authors writing about common themes but expect more from later novels, even though experience has taught me that second novels from highly acclaimed debut authors are sometimes duds, rushed into publication on the crest of the wave long before the author has had time to percolate ideas or craft the writing to match their debut.

So, how does When the Night Comes stack up?  Past the Shallows was a pitiless tale of privation and melancholy, and When the Night Comes traverses some of the same territory: sad kids, broken family, inadequate mothering.  Hobart as a miserable grey place where the sun never seems to shine.  Poverty of mind and spirit as well as lack of money.  What saves When the Night Comes from this pervasive Misery 101 theme from the creative writing schools is the central image of the Nella Dan, the rugged red Antarctic supply ship which operated from 1962 to 1987 for ANARE (the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) and harboured in Hobart.  Isla’s bleak life is enlivened not just by the splash of colour in the harbour but by the arrival of Bo, a Danish cook who becomes her mother’s friend.  Bo brings laughter and sunshine and impressively good food into a house that’s not a home, and Isla learns to look beyond the gloomy confines of her world through him.

I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bo tackles the Women’s Weekly cuisine at Isla’s place – savoury mince and Russian potato salad with egg.

‘I think this needs to go in the rubbish tip,’ Bo said, and dropped the book in the white swing-top bin.  My eyes must have opened wide, because then he said, ‘Well, we won’t tell anyone we did that.  It will just be lost.’

He put his hands on his cheeks, pulled a face.

‘Oh, where could it be? Where could that wonderful cookbook with such exciting food be? We are lost without it!’

I looked at the bin.  I was worried about how I was going to manage to cook without the recipes.

‘Food comes from here,’ Bo said, putting his hand on his chest. ‘Good food you know how to cook from …’ and he looked up at the ceiling, maybe searching for the words in English. ‘By heart,’ he said.  (p. 196)

The descriptions of his golden pastries are superb. Parrett is good at vivid scenes, and the contrasts of colour in this book are particularly good.  The palette is grey, but the bursts of primary colour remind me of stunning B&W art photography where just one element has colour, or that unforgettable image of the little girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

This is more an impressionistic novel than a plot-driven story, but there is some interest in whether or not Bo is a Pinkerton figure (though the formless grey figure of Isla’s mother is certainly no Butterfly), and feeling pessimistic at one stage, I wondered whether there was going to be another pervasive theme, the sexual abuse of the adolescent girl.  The real focus of the novel, however, is the power of briefly intersecting lives, and the romance of the brave ship’s journeys in the Antarctic.  Today, when people can visit Antarctica as tourists, the researchers can keep in contact through the internet, and everybody’s seen nature docos about polar regions, Antarctica seems less remote, but that was not so in the 1980s.  I remember when the Nella Dan was stranded in the ice for seven weeks in 1985, and I think all of us were worried about the fate of the crew until they were rescued.

The story is constructed in short scenes which juxtapose Isla’s young life with Bo’s life aboard the Nella Dan and in Denmark, concluding with scenes from much later when Isla is an adult and Bo is a father.  There is also a newspaper report about the ship’s demise, and there are snippets from ships’ logs, scraps of poetry and many references to popular music of the period.  What makes the story line a little hard to follow in places is that there’s not sufficient contrast between Bo’s narration and Isla’s.  Parrett has avoided reproducing the speech patterns of a character with English as a second language but his command of idiom makes him indistinguishable in some scenes: talking flat out, photos that are arty (p. 23) seems unlikely, especially for someone who travels with a multilingual crew.   But this is a small quibble.

Parrett’s writing style is spare, pregnant with meaning.  The reader has to pay attention to fill the text with what is not there.  In this passage, for example, we see the small family coming home after visiting Bo’s ship:

We walked home from the wharf with Mum, and my brother held the box tightly all the way.  It was a box of a hundred packets of Wrigley’s chewing gum, and even though I’d never seen my brother eat chewing gum before, I knew he still couldn’t believe his luck.

He looked at me and he told me that I could have half, that we could share the chewing gum.  That’s how things were between us. (p.36)

Limited by poverty but not diminished by it, Isla’s brother is a little boy for whom treats are a rarity – but his relationship with his sister transcends everything else.

Parrett’s research for When the Night Comes involved an Australian Antarctic Fellowship enabling her to visit Macquarie Island and the Antarctic aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis, but (see this interview at the Mercury) it was experiencing the journey that gave the novel life.  Is this enough?  For this novel, yes, I think so, but I’m hoping that the next one tackles something bigger.

Other reviews are at The Guardian, the SMH and the ABC.

Author: Favel Parrett
Title: When the Night Comes
Publisher: Hachette, 2014
ISBN: 9780733626586
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Availability

Fishpond: When the Night Comes


Responses

  1. Excellent review. I liked the scene you shared about the cookbook – made me laugh.

    • That’s what I like about reviewing on line, there’s enough space to quote a snippet from the book to give a taste of the author’s style.

  2. […] When the Night Comes, by Favel Parrett (see my review) […]

  3. […] But Tasmanian authors range far and wide in their preoccupations.  In The End of Seeing (2015) Christy Collins wrote a beautiful mediation on grief which situates her characters in the wider world.  By contrast Helen Hodgman in Blue Skies (1976) is more domestic in her concerns, capturing the inertia of suburban life for women in the 1950s.  Favel Parrett (who now lives in Melbourne but will always be thought of as Taswegian because of her vivid settings in Hobart) has a focus on disadvantage in her novels Past the Shallows (2011) and When the Night Comes (2014). […]


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