Past the Shallows & When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett
Powerful and Haunting novels set in Tasmania
One of the absolutely best things about being a bookseller and a voracious reader is the discovery of authors whose work I was not previously familiar with. I recently came across the first novel by Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows – a perfect little book in every way, as is her second When Night Comes, published this year. Though she now lives in Australia Favel Parrett grew up in Tasmania where both of her novels are set.
Past the Shallows is a very beautiful and very sad book. The writing is spare – every word considered, almost a prose poem. The story is about three brothers living in Tasmania. Their lives revolve around life at home with their brutal, unhappy, and hard drinking father who makes his living as a fisherman. School is a place of safety, and for the older boys surfing as often as possible provides an escape.
There is a sense, as you read, that something terrible is going to happen. These boys are without their mother – we discover the truth of her absence as we read. Though they do their best to care for each other, especially for the youngest, even the older boys are still children. These boys carry such a burden of neglect but there are some, family members and neighbours, who attempt to help and occasionally provide the boys a respite from their harsh home environment.
The exquisite writing is what elevates this novel to something more than the desperate story of children attempting to survive circumstances most of us can only imagine. Past the Shallows is a book I could not put down though I dreaded discovering the fate of these boys – and was very relieved to discover there is hope for some of them at the end of the novel.
When the Night Comes is another story of siblings – again with only one parent. This little family lives in Hobart in Tasmania – the children grade school age. The girl, Isla, narrates, as does a Danish sailor, Bo, who is crew on the ship, the Nella Dan. The Nella Dan was a real boat, sailing between Denmark and Antarctica for over 25 years before her demise in 1987. While in Hobart Bo becomes involved in a relationship with Isla’s mother – a relationship that becomes very dear to the children. The story takes place over a couple of years – Bo describing his life on the ship, delivering and picking up expeditioners to and from Antarctica with time off in both Hobart and Denmark, and Isla the story of the family in Hobart.
Tasmania is of course in the southern hemisphere where the summer begins in November. The sun never sets and the Winterers are returning on the Nella Dan from a season in Antarctica. The parts of the novel that take place on the ship are fascinating - the hard work and the camaraderie among the crew who live so closely together for so long in such isolation.
Favel Parrett was awarded the Antarctic Arts Fellowship in 2012 to do research for this book, her journey one she describes as life changing. She experienced for herself life on a ship – the crew and passengers a world away from their families for so long and then the intense periods of leave at home – or sometimes, as in the case of Bo and some others, in Hobart. For Isla and her small family in Hobart the arrival of the “little red ship” the Nella Dan brings Bo back into their lives and his presence provides some semblance of a father figure for these children. Again, a beautiful book. Again children experiencing a certain amount of neglect but this time we don’t fear for their lives.