A soulful fictional homage to a beloved Antarctic vessel, from Australian author Parrett (Past the Shallows, 2014).
The red-hulled Antarctic supply ship Nella Dan, like its fictional counterpart, was decommissioned and sunk in the mid-1980s after running aground on the sub-Antarctic island of Macquarie. In Parrett’s second novel, the Nella Dan brings together, however temporarily, a broken Australian family and a Danish sailor. Teenager Isla, her unnamed younger brother and her mother (known only as Mum) move to Hobart, Tasmania. The implication is that Mum has left the children’s father. (The precise nature of the domestic difficulties will emerge but is not the main focus here.) Watching as Nella Dan docks in Hobart, Isla notices a man on deck waving to her. From there, a series of vignettes narrated in turn by Isla and the man who waved—Bo, the ship's chief cook—reveal in small, earthy details how kind people can be. Somehow Bo meets Mum, and while he's in port, he tries to be a father to her children. He shows them how to shell walnuts with a pocketknife, introduces them to the warm delights of Nella Dan’s kitchen, gives Mum cooking tips, and encourages Isla, as she enters high school, to pursue science. From the ship’s logs we learn the progress of the Nella Dan as she transports personnel to and from an Antarctic research station, making frequent stops in Hobart, and spends weeks trapped in ice. Although all hands survive Nella Dan’s final mishap, she is scuttled by her owners. Bo—who, like his father before him, joined Nella Dan’s crew as a teenager—is a gentle giant, and Mum, though apparently grateful for the help and companionship, is too damaged by her history to let him join her family. All these facts are approached obliquely, without any trace of sentimentality. Although the specter of child endangerment does arise—the brother is menaced by a white van, a young schoolmate is hit by a car—Parrett’s emphasis is on the opposite: child nurturing in whatever unexpected guise it may occur.
An accretion of exquisite moments.