I was drawn to Favel Parrett’s novel by the slimmest of synopses when checking out titles for my Books to Look Out for in November post. Antarctica was the lure. I’ve read several non-fiction books about it and had particularly enjoyed Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. In the event it’s not really about that but this story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for the Casey research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down turns out to be quite captivating. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.
Isla’s mother has fled a violent marriage, taking Isla and her brother to Hobart where they live hand-to-mouth until her divorce settlement comes through. They take in a lodger to help pay for the small cottage her mother buys. Bo is the cook aboard the Nella Dan, the Danish ship which takes expeditioners down to Casey Island and supplies the research station there. He’s the son of a sailor who died young at sea, a man who also crewed the Nella Dan, sailing on her maiden voyage. Bo comes and goes with the ship gradually bringing Isla out of herself with his tales of life at sea, his descriptions of elephant seals and the beauty of the Antarctic, firing an interest in science and the natural world which will follow her into adult life. Bo and Isla’s mother grow close. Over ‘two long summers’, tragedy and disappointment intertwine with quiet joy and camaraderie aboard the Nella Dan, just as in Hobart a terrible loss is tempered by gradual adjustment and acceptance.
In short impressionistic chapters, occasionally punctuated with brief bursts of poetry, Parrett tenderly unfolds the story of Bo, Isla and the Nella Dan, sometimes through Bo, sometimes, through Isla. Moments of drama stand out vividly from her quietly poetic yet unfussy prose. It’s studded with wonderful descriptions – Leo baking in the galley, his pastries ‘like sunshine’; the snow petrels of Casey Island ‘flashes of white against the sky’; Isla’s first sighting of the ‘bright red wall of steel’ of the Nella Dan and the wave she exchanges with the sailor on board. The growing bond between Bo and Isla – both of whom lost their fathers young in very different ways – and the deep, often unspoken, consideration and friendship between the sailors, are beautifully conveyed. Not least, there’s the love of the sailors for their ship – hard for those of us who’ve spent our working lives confined within four walls to comprehend perhaps, but borne out by the testimony of the men who really did sail on her: ‘the Ship of my Life’, ‘the perfect ship’, as Hans Sønderburg puts it. A beautifully expressed book, then, far more moving than I expected, and one I hope won’t be overlooked.