Favel Parrett is an Australian author whom I have heard a lot of praise about of late, but she still seems to be relatively under the radar in the United Kingdom. She has been called ‘a fresh and vital voice in Australian fiction’ (The Australian Women’s Weekly), and a ‘strong voice’ in the field of Australian literature (The Canberra Times). I have been eager to read many more works set in Australia, and by authors who live there, since I visited in 2015-2016. Thankfully my local library had a copy of Parrett’s When the Night Comes, which was first published in 2014.
When the Night Comes is described as ‘a powerful and haunting novel set on the very edge of the world.’ Told by two protagonists, the novel takes place in Tasmania and Antarctica between 1986 and 1987. We meet a young girl named Isla, who has moved to a relatively isolated community with her mother and younger brother, and a ‘modern viking’ named Bo, who comes from Copenhagen and is working as a cook on a ship called the MS Nella Dan. The voyage takes him to Antarctica, as the scientists on his ship have been tasked with surveying krill and zooplankton, as well as conducting a survey of Heard Island. Bo gives Isla ‘the gift of stillness, of watching birds… She shows him what is missing in his life.’ I am drawn to books in which quite different protagonists are drawn together, and was suitably intrigued by what When the Night Comes promised.
The novel opens with Isla and her family journeying to their new home on the island of Tasmania. She recounts the choppy, difficult crossing: ‘I must have fallen asleep because when I woke the whole world was rocking and shaking and I was rolling in my bed. Not just from side to side, but up and down as well.’ She goes on to comment: ‘It was only the ship that was keeping us safe. Only thin layers of steel and an engine pumping away in the dark were keeping us above the water, which would gladly swallow us all up like we had never ever been.’
In this descriptive prose, which carries on throughout the novel, Parrett proves that she is great at creating atmosphere. Of the relatively deprived place which Isla and her family move to, she writes, for instance: ‘Battery Point, where the houses were old and solid like tombstones, and there were never any people on the streets or in the front gardens. There were never any people anywhere. Just my brother and me, walking fast, always looking behind us.’
Searching for belonging is a constant thread in this novel. In Bo’s narrative, Parrett writes: ‘Tonight, all these weeks in, I just wanted to step onto the solid frozen earth and say, I am here. Only a cook, but here all the same.’ I really admired the way in which Parrett uses loneliness and belonging to pull both of her protagonists together, as well as the way in which she causes their friendship, and in turn their confidence, to grow. Isla comments: ‘But silence was easy with Bo. It was not lonely and I could think. I could think about the sky and about the light and how things changed. I could stop holding myself so very tightly.’
When the Night Comes is a relatively quiet read, but it is one which I found highly engaging. The characters are realistic, and Parrett keeps at the forefront of her novel their concerns and their sadnesses. Her descriptions throughout are lovely, and she maintains believable narrative voices for both of her lead characters. The novel is philosophical at times, and really causes one to think about what it really means to exist. Things do happen as the novel goes on, but the focus, really, is upon the protagonists, and how various events affect them.