When The Night Comes has clearly had a lot of time and love invested in its making. Favel Parrett has travelled to Antarctica, Macquarie Island and Heard Island. She has researched the history of Australia’s Antarctic ships and interviewed many who had sailed on them. It is clear that Favel Parrett is passionate.
It’s sad, then, that this passion has produced a rather lacklustre novel. It is never clear exactly what the focus is. At first, we have a series of first person narratives told by Isla, a young girl who has moved with her mother and brother to Tasmania when her mother’s marriage breaks down. Initially there are privations, but as her mother finds her feet these ease. For two summers, the family is joined by Bo, a Dane who works as a cook on the Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan. Some sections, though, follow Bo on board the Nella Dan and back to his former life in Denmark and his friendship with Soren, one of his fellow cooks. And then there’s an ending that suggests the ship is the star. This lack of a clear focus makes everything feel like backstory with no main story.
The sections themselves are told in a staccato fashion, self complete but sequential. Some of them are quite good when considered as individual pieces of flash fiction. The trouble is, they don’t cohere as a whole. It never feels like one, single book but always like several pieces tacked together despite Bo and Isla seemingly writing in the same voice. The language is very basic and mostly confined to facts; there is little introspection or interpretation. We do not ever really learn how the characters relate to one another. The only real exception to this is the affection felt by Bo for Soren. Bo gives heavy hints that he felt love for Soren and this makes for an interesting contrast to the unstated but implied relationship between Bo and Isla’s mother. For the most part, the depth is missing and the novel feels thin and two-dimensional.
By the end of the novel, we are expected to accept that the protagonists have a love for the Nella Dan to the extent that they have an emotional involvement in the ship’s fate. It feels like a leap too far. We needed to be shown the love, not just told of it.
The feeling of place, particularly in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic, isn’t quite there. The descriptions of Hobart early on in the book are better but it still feels as though individual locations have been summoned rather than whole communities. In parts, it is too easy to lose track of whether a scene is set in Hobart or Denmark. When Australian references pop up, they seem to jar.
On the rare occasion that an attempt is made to break away from the monotone – e.g. the section near the end written in second person – it feels forced and artificial. There is one very strange section right before the last one that feels really incongruous, repetitive and doesn’t seem to add to the whole.
When The Night Comes is a short novel that reads quickly. It’s not a bad novel; the failings are not enormous, but they aren’t really balanced by the good aspects. Following on from Past The Shallows is a difficult ask, but this was never going to be the answer. ***00