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Posted on 9 Oct 2014 in Fiction |

FAVEL PARRETT When the Night Comes. Reviewed by Robyne Young

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whenthenightcomesThe fragility of life and the beauty of the Antarctic combine in Favel Parrett’s new novel.

I came to the reading of Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes with my heart still full of the memory of the tears shed over the young characters in her debut novel, Past the Shallows. Dark and harrowing, that book took me into the deep waters of a family situation where I prayed for the rescue of the two brothers.

When the Night Comes also deals with the dark, the sea, the relationship between siblings and parental inability to cope, but this time from the outset there is a sense that a life raft is within reach of the characters and the reader.

The novel has a ‘once upon a time’ fairytale opening:

There was a time when Vikings filled our house and there were people and parties and Mum was happy then.

They were real Vikings. Big hulking Vikings who came from far away on a bright red ship, which busted through pack ice and made it all the way down to Antarctica. They had names like Anders and Bo and Finn and Henrik and they were all tall and blond, except for Bo, who had dark brown hair and grey-blue eyes. He was from a small island that was the sunniest place in all of Denmark.

This is the memory of an adult Isla looking back on the influence of the ‘little red ship’, the Nella Dan, that brought colour, light and Bo into the lives of her mother and brother and herself after they had made a hurried escape from an unhappy domestic situation on the mainland.

Through alternating first-person narratives, Isla and Bo’s past and present lives are revealed with deceptively simple prose and skilful storytelling using oppositional concepts − light and dark; solidity and fragility; absence and presence; cold and warmth; emotional  and physical hunger and satiety; arrival and departure − in vignettes that are almost like diaries or ships’ logs in style.

Isla has a fear of the dark, the cold and of being invisible in the world, but from the minute Bo waves to her from the Nella Dan, confirming her existence − ‘Someone could see me …’ − she gains a new confidence. It is a confidence that grows when Bo comes to live with her family, and she learns about his life in Denmark as the son of a sailor.

There is also the potential of a more conventional family life when Bo forms a relationship with Isla’s mother, but Isla’s mother is ‘always sitting places by herself in the night – always sitting by herself having one more cigarette’. Perhaps her mother knows Bo will never be able to settle on the other side of the world.

As in Past the Shallows, there are constant reminders of the fragility of life, but in When the Night Comes, the deaths result from accidents. Parrett deals with these, including the death of a schoolfriend of Isla’s brother, with prose that gives heartbreaking insight into the sibling relationship:

All I could think about was the white paper bag of mixed lollies I had in my hand.
They were for my brother …
He didn’t cry, my brother. I didn’t see him cry. I only saw his body shake − just a shudder, like something very small had collapsed inside his bones.

There are other influences in Isla’s life – the science teacher, Mr Wilkins, the typing teacher, Mrs Hadley, and the woodwork teacher, Mr Forrest.  At high school, Isla moves toward emotional independence and finds her own identity, needing Bo less.

Throughout the novel, there is always the Nella Dan, sailing away and returning. It is during her journeys that we learn the most about Bo and daily life aboard the ship. Giving the novel even more texture, there is food: the familiar − hot dogs, Kit Kats, cornflakes and tinned fruit; Wrigley’s chewing gum; International Roast coffee – and the less familiar at that time: ham, smoked salmon, real coffee, Black Forest cake and custard-filled pastries Isla deems  ‘like sunshine’:

That first bite. Crisp buttery flakes, sweet warm custard oozing − sharp marzipan and almond. Then eggs, the sugar, the crunch of pastry − made with big hands. Made with skill and care. Made for breakfast − to start the day − to greet the sun. A magic loop of pastry.

 And there is always the Antarctic – changing from beautiful to treacherous.

 … Ice sparkles in the sun
 Like diamonds − like jewels, thousands of them shining in the white …

Captain’s note: We have spent the past 6 hours in heavy ice covered in a deep layer of snow. There is no open water in sight of the vessel, just frozen leads. First officer is at the helm, but we have been unable to move more than a few metres in any direction.

Informed by Parrett’s time on the Aurora Australis after winning the Antarctic Arts Fellowship, and her own childhood in Hobart, When the Night Comes had such authenticity for me that at the end of the novel, when the adult Isla reflects on ‘The red of his ship and the white-blue of the ice. The colour of the sky changing from light to dark and then opening up to blue in patches – moments …’ I wanted to return to the beginning and experience those moments with Isla, Bo and the Nella Dan again.

Favel Parrett When the Night Comes Hachette Australia 2014 PB, 256pp $27.99

Robyne Young writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction, blogs at and works as the Communications Officer at Regional Arts NSW.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.