Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2014.
Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes is one of those lovely, gentle stories that demands nothing of the reader — except to let the quiet, bare-boned prose wash over you.
Set in 1986, largely in Hobart, Tasmania and on the Antarctic ice-breaker Nella Dan, the story charts the friendship between two unlikely people: Isla, a young teenage girl, and Bo, the Danish crewman who boards with her family when he’s not at sea.
Told in short impressionistic chapters — sometimes from Isla’s point of view, sometimes from Bo’s — their intertwined stories slowly unfold. What emerges is an in-depth character study of two people trying to find their rightful places in the world after loss — in Isla’s case, the loss of her father through divorce; in Bo’s case, through the death of his father and, later, a colleague.
While I would hesitate to describe When the Night Comes as a portrait of grief, it is very much a story about emotional truths. For Isla it’s all about working out whom she can trust and discovering that not all grown men are violent or unpredictable as per her estranged father; for Bo it’s about reconnecting with the things that his papa loved so much — nature, the sea and the camaraderie to be found onboard ship.
My father turned to me and said, “The sea is alive and there is no beginning and there is no end. It moves with the moon and the spinning of this earth and it calls us when it wants us to come.”
Indeed, the book offers some beautiful descriptions of the Antarctic wilderness, of the endless ice and snow, and the birds that fly overhead, and it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for the frozen emotional states of both characters, whose gentle friendship over the course of “two long summers” helps them readjust to new circumstances.
Central to the storyline is the role of food and the exquisite comfort it can bring at times of turmoil. Bo, a chef on the Nella Dan, tells Isla and her younger brother of the simple joy that an orange can bring when you are far out at sea — or trapped in ice, as the Nella Dan was for seven long weeks en route to Antarctica’s Casey research station. And when he’s at home preparing food he is at his most honest and forthright with Isla, sharing stories of the sea and infecting her with a lifelong interest in science and the natural world.
(The descriptions of food, by the way, are mouthwatering… and it pays not to read this book on an empty stomach. You have been warned.)
While there’s a melancholia at the heart of this novel, helped in part by a series of tragic events, it never feels claustrophobic or depressing. It deals with big issues — death, grief, divorce, among others — so you might expect the narrative to feel weighted down, but it’s almost the opposite: the prose practically floats off the page it feels so light. Coupled with moments of quiet, unbridled joy, When the Night Comes is a truly captivating and unexpectedly moving story.
Last year it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, The Indie Books Awards, the ALS Gold Medal and the ABA’s Booksellers Choice Award.
It has been published in the UK and North America.
For another take on this novel, please read Susan’s review at A Life in Books.