It seems fitting that I should write the review of a book so concerned with memory two weeks after I read it. It seems even more fitting that so much of the book has clung to me during the past fortnight. Even when I was at Center Parcs it shadowed me and tugged at my thoughts (except when I was on the waterslides, obviously, when I was thinking about waterslides and waterslides only) and filtered my perceptions. It is a remarkable novel.
What makes the depiction of memory in When the Night Comes such a revelation is Favel Parrett understanding, exactly, how memory works. Our memories are not stories with beginnings, middles and ends; they are moments, fragments. And it is from these fragments that we build the narrative of our lives, that we construct our selves. The structure of the novel mirrors this process. The short chapters, shared almost equally between two narrators, are brief descriptions of incidents that have affected them deeply. The sort of things that we ponder on in the small hours of the night. Often seismic but often trifling. The pointless what-ifs. The vicious maybes.
Bo is a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship, Isla the daughter of a woman he has a relationship with when he is stationed in Hobart for nine months. Their lives are temporarily joined and each of them gives to the other the gift of seeing another way a life might be lived. Their friendship is quiet, filled with observation and stillness. It is an echo of Bo’s relationship with his father and will end in the same way, with the passing on of the call of the sea.
Dual narratives can be tricky things, too often a compromise of a writer who has noticed their first person narrator wouldn’t be able to see everything that happens in their book, but the dual narrative is the raison d’être of When The Night Comes. It is a dual narrative because it is the story of two people and how they have affected each other. This sounds a comically pointless observation on my part, I know, but When the Night Comes is one of those novels that matches form perfectly to intention. It is a master class in what the dual narrative can do in the right hands.
But this is not just a novel of form but of content. The language is calm, and when Isla is narrating deceptively simple. There is also a great sense of place. The Nella Dan, Bo’s ship is perfectly realised, as is Hobart. Antarctica looms over the novel so evocatively it feels like a third lead. Parrett was awarded the Antarctic Arts Fellowship and her travelling there clearly affected her greatly. Antarctica is underrepresented in fiction I feel (Maria Semple, HP Lovecraft… er…) though I doubt many will be able to describe it as well or as easily as Parrett does here. Both Bo and Isla are drawn to it, called to it, in such a simple, beautiful way, by its very presence, by the truth of its existence.
Any Cop?: This is one of the books of the year.