After a week in beautiful northern Tasmania, on New Years’ Eve my partner and I drove south to Hobart. Rested and rejuvenated, we met up with friends to celebrate the start of a big year ahead. What lay ahead us was a week of eating and drinking, chatting and laughing, walking around town and laying in the park. Reflecting on the holidays and talking about the year ahead, we were surrounded by the backdrop of the beautiful city that is also the setting of Favel Parrett’s second novel, When The Night Comes, where I found myself reading over long, lazy afternoons laying in the cool grass of St David’s Park.
In When The Night Comes, Isla and her brother find themselves in Hobart as their mother escapes from the mainland and tries to start a-new. In the cool, dark, haunted island of Tasmania they set about building a new life for themselves. As the kids explore the city, one day they come across a big red ship (the Nella Dan) who’s size and colour cut through the grey harbour. Their mother befriends a cook from the ship, Bo, a Danish sailor who has made the Nella Dan his island, his own place to make a home for himself. And so their lives begin to intertwine. The narrative switches back and forth between Bo’s life on the ship as it sails from Denmark to Antarctica, the young family’s life in Hobart, and the periods that the two crossover into one. The story moves just as their lives would, with Bo away on missions, then floating back into town for the refuelling and service of the ship, and breaks for the crew on board.
Parrett beautifully ruminates on the idea of home: the homes we’re born with and the homes we create for ourselves. Is home determined by family, origin or those who surround you? How much does landscape connect us to a place and help us build roots there? As Isla describes the impact of Mount Wellington on the city of Hobart, we can see how it’s strong presence grounds her to the city, showing it’s personality as it offers shelter from the most extremes of the heat and the cold, providing security against the howling winds from the south:
… I liked the mountain. It was nice to look up and see it when it wanted to be seen. Because it could disappear whenever it felt like it - be completely gone under thick cloud or fog, making Hobart flatter, greyer. And when the mountain re-emerged it would be different. Changed. Maybe dusted with snow - or just a dark raw shape - a face of long stones. But sometimes it would be golden with the sun - lit up under a blue open sky. Cold and clear and full of light, radiating out.
But what drew me to When The Night Comes most was Parrett’s incredible ability to capture the voice and heart of the two children in the story. Not since Romy Ash’s Floundering (one of my absolute favourite Australian novels) have I read such an authentic portrayal of the dualities of wiseness and naivety in a child’s voice. Anyone who has had the privilege of reading Floundering will feel those surges equally of beauty and concern flood back as they follow the children searching for their place in both the landscape and in their family. But whereas Ash’s setting is hot, harsh and brash, Parrett’s is dark, raw and cold. It feels as if the warmth of the children and their joy in open space is stifled by the stone walls and manicured surroundings of Hobart. When the family find a house in Battery Point, the children go exploring, like all children do, looking for friendly faces and places to play:
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.
It is in the ragged mountain off in the distance and the rough, cold sea that they identify, and Bo connects them to both of these. His home in Denmark is amongst the mountains and he speaks of it fondly and distantly, bringing an aura of mysticism and wonder to the mountain that creeps over the shoulder of Hobart, and his life at sea shows the children that their can be warmth and family, even as the brutal cold waves smash against the ship at night. As I walked along Salamanca I noticed the darkness of the corridor leading to Kelly’s Steps like I never had before. I could imagine the kids running through the dark stone passage out in to the bright square and on to the water, seeking open space and light. It brought the words to life in a haunting, visceral way that made me experience the city in a whole new light.
When The Night Comes acts as a celebration of the accidental moments and chance encounters that change our life’s course. How a ship sailing into a harbour can illuminate a child’s face and offer a taste of travel and adventure. When people come into our lives completely by chance but feel like they have been brought to us for a reason. Why cities that we travel to for escape can provide us with the sense of home we didn’t know we needed. It is a beautiful novel, with a grounded sense of place and a tender story. It was made all the more vivid for reading it in whilst in Hobart, but no matter where it’s read When The Night Comes will take you to another place.
A week of holidaying with friends was brought to a close and reality hit with a thud. As my partner and our friends flew home to Melbourne, I stayed on in Hobart for work. Sixteen days that were incredibly rewarding, but also incredibly trying physically and emotionally. It’s hard being away from my partner for that long. My body pushed through the long days of running around town by adrenalin, but then crashed at the end. At that’s where I am at as I write this. It has taken me a week of sleeping almost as many hours a night as I worked during those long days, of spending the day laying on the couch watching the tennis and Danish crime dramas, of dosing myself on fruit and vegetables and herbal tea. My body has not responded well. It aches. Pushing my body to keep up with my mind has caused it to crash and reignite ongoing health issues. My body is trying to teach me a lesson, one that I think I’m finally ready to listen to. When I go to Berlin it’s as a sabbatical - it’s time to be kind to my body and see what happens. I love the work I do and I know that I’m good at it, but it’s time to reevaluate how I do it and why. I want to use this time away to work on my writing, but also to visit the kind of events I work on here and see how others make it work. Is there a kinder, gentler way to explore the arts and ideas with people without causing yourself to collapse in a heap as soon as it’s over?
Over the last six and half years that I have been working as an events producer, I’ve travelled a lot. Moving between Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart I have worked up to twelve festivals in a year, which is completely mental. It means that even when I’m home, I often work weekends. My partner understands my work more than many others, but it can be difficult. I struggle to plan ahead because I often don’t know where and when I’ll be working even as soon as a month away. Often when I’m home I’m exhausted and just need to sleep. Sometimes I work from 9 to 5, sometimes I work nights for a month, sometimes I work both. One constant in our home life is trying to eat breakfast together on the weekends. When I’m home and rested we’ll walk to a local cafe and treat ourselves to breakfast out. But sometimes I just want to stay home, and when this happens, we have pancakes. Pancakes were a staple of my childhood too: something my Mum could throw together quickly after work and give my brother and I as a treat. Pancakes make me feel like I’m home.
There’s a beautiful passage in When The Night Comes where Bo is in the kitchen with Isla and her brother. Isla is trying to help out in the kitchen while her mother is having a difficult time, something that as the eldest child in my family I completely identified with. Bo throws away the family’s copy of the Women’s Weekly Cookbook - a staple in all Australian households, including my childhood home - and comforts the wide-eyed Isla by offering to teach her how to make her favourite foods from scratch:
‘Food comes from here,’ Bo said, and he put his hand on his chest. ‘Good food you know how to cook from…’ and he looked up to the ceiling, maybe searching for the words in English. ‘By heart,’ he said.
He picked up a pen and the message notepad that was next to the phone and handed it to me.
‘You write. My English, not brilliant for writing,’ he said. Then he said, ‘Your mum is doing her best. I know that.’
This beautiful passage reminds us of the healing power of food. That when we see people in pain we can cook for them, and in doing so, nourish them both in food and with love.
That afternoon Bo taught me how to make a simple pancake batter, one that was foolproof and good, and I didn’t worry at all while I was making it. I didn’t worry about how it would turn out or if I’d done it wrong. I just stayed there in the kitchen with Bo, while he finished off his vegetable soup.
He told me that when he is cooking, he is a happy little bear.
I made the pancakes and my brother said they were good. Not as good as at the cafe but good all the same.
While I was in Hobart, on my only day off, I craved pancakes. I wanted to go home, even just for the day, to see my partner and sleep in my apartment instead of a hotel room. I made horrible pancakes from a supermarket shaker mix and they were powdery and heavy and just made me miss home even more. So when I finally got home to Melbourne, I made myself pancakes. Proper cooking, from scratch and from the heart. It’s really the same recipe that my Mum used to make for me, but I’m not completely sure because I’ve always made them by heart, never from a recipe. But recently I taught my partner how to make pancakes (a cunning trick to ensure I get to eat them more often) and so had to refine the recipe slightly in order to be able to pass it on. I start with one cup of flour - it can be any kind you like. I use a gluten free mix or straight buckwheat flour or a mix of the two, but you can use plain old regular flour, whole wheat flour, spelt flour - whatever you have available or whatever mood you’re in. Then I crack in one egg, add a pinch of salt and if I’m eating them with sweet toppings a teaspoon of vanilla, then I whisk all of this together with as much milk as I need to make the consistency I’m after. If you prefer thicker, fluffier pancakes, use less milk and add half a teaspoon of baking powder. If you’re after crepes, keep adding milk until the batter is the consistency of pouring cream. Then pour into a lightly greased frying pan, one pancake at a time until you’re out of batter. While I’m cooking I keep the pancakes on a plate covered in a clean tea towel so that by the time I’m ready to sit down to eat, they’re still warm and, when thin enough, still able to be rolled. I like mine best with lemon and sugar and whatever fruit is in season, but usually our table is full of honey, jams and curds too, just in case we feel like something sweeter. Eating pancakes is like a little ceremony in our apartment. Our little family, just the two of us, gathering around the table to savour being together, in the home we have made for ourselves. It’s the best kind of cooking: it brings us together with a recipe passed down from one generation to the next, and makes us grateful for being home, wherever that may be.
Though cunningly an advertisement for a fancy - and frankly unnecessary - notebook, I loved this piece on the Readings blog about keeping a record of every book you read. As a way to keep track of books you loved and books you didn’t, as an easy resource when asked for recommendations by friends, as a way to track what you read and by whom (something this site helped me do last year, the results of which I posted with May We Be Forgiven). But also, as I’ve discovered in writing about what I read, by keeping a record of what you read, you somehow end up reading more. It lets you set yourself goals for reading and keeps you accountable to them. You read more broadly and more often, and it makes you a better reader. You can write keep a record on a scrap of paper, in your diary, track it in a spreadsheet, or in a GoodReads account. You can share it with friends or keep it secret. No matter how you do it, it’s worth doing, even for a short period of time, to see if and how it changes your reading.