Isla is a lonely girl who moves to Hobart with her mother and brother to try to better their lives. It’s not really working until they meet Bo, a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan, who shares stories about his adventures with them—his travels, bird watching, his home in Denmark, and life on board the ship. Isla is struggling to learn what truly matters and who to trust, while this modern Viking is searching to understand his past and to find a place in this world for himself. Though their time together is short, it is enough to change the course of both their lives.
It's the late 1980s. Isla and her younger brother, Peter, are with their mother traveling to Hobart, a major city within the Australian state of Tasmania. It's there that they hope to start a new life, one that might help the mother overcome her crippling depression. Also coming into port is the eye-catching red scientific research ship Nella Dan. On board is Bo, the ship's cook. The ship's crew is on temporary leave, taking a break from their researching trip around Antarctica. Bo befriends Isla's mother, who quickly offers to take him on as a house guest while he's in town. In the weeks he stays with them all, Bo quietly becomes a sort of solid father figure to the lonely Isla, He tells stories of his adventures on the ship and of his childhood in his native Denmark and phrases them in such a way that they subtlety help to soothe Isla's constant anxiety about life's persistent uncertainties and upheavals.
When not talking of the relationship Bo has with this family in Tasmania, the story continues to follow him whenever he returns to the Nella Dan. On one winter trip, the ship gets stuck in ice and the crew is forced to wait it out for 2 months before a Japanese ice breaker ship is able to come by and dig them out. In the meantime, the reader gets an intimate look at life on a ship and the comraderie that builds from the close quarters. Once freed, looking back on the hardships of those months ends up making the crew deeply, eternally grateful and humbled for all of life's "little things" from then on. As Bo repeatedly finds himself thinking, "Never thought I'd be so happy for an apple!" Later on, the story also illustrates how a crew can get so attached to a ship as to actually feel / attach an almost human spirit to the metal. Pavett does this so well that I felt myself getting a little choked up over the fate of the ship!
above: the real-life Nella Dan, prior to the Australian govt. making
the controversial decision to scuttle it.
Pavett was inspired to craft this novel after hearing the story of the real-life ship Nella Dan, built in Denmark but used by the Australian government from 1953-1987. It sailed longer and farther than any other Antarctic expedition ship in history. Pavett's tale is poetically, quietly told in a pace that I found similar to Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. If you were a fan of that book, I personally found this story even better. I really liked the character of Bo, the quiet solidness he had about him, and the sort of surrogate father-daughter relationship that grew between him and Isla. I also liked the descriptions of life on the ship and the friendships that developed between the crew. I found myself picking out my favorites in the crew and being bummed when one of the guys didn't make it to the end of the story :-( Parrett's writing felt pretty cinematic itself, but I could definitely see this, with the right cinematographer brought on, being made into a pretty stunning movie!