Title: The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker
Author: Joanna Nell
Published: September 24th 2019
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4.5 stars
Joanna Nell’s follow-up to the bestselling THE SINGLE LADIES OF JACARANDA RETIREMENT VILLAGE is a poignant ode to love and the memories that make a well-lived life
As the wife of retired ship’s doctor Dr Henry Parker, Evelyn is living out her twilight years aboard the Golden Sunset. Every night she dresses for dinner – gown, tiara, runners – and regales her fellow passengers with stories of a glamorous life travelling the world in luxury as well as showing off her superior knowledge of everything from ships’ customs to biographical details of her heroine, Florence Nightingale. The crew treat her with deference. And forbearance.
But when Henry goes missing, Evelyn sets off to search every part of the grand ocean liner to find him, casino, nightclub and off-limits areas included. Misadventures are had, new friends are made, scandalous behaviour noted – all news to Evelyn. If only she could remember the events of the night before as clearly as she can recall the first time she met Henry on a passage from England to Australia in 1953 and fell in love, abandoning her dreams to become a midwife to be a wife instead – and the long-ago painful events that left Evelyn all at sea.
Why is it so hard to remember some things and so hard to forget others? And where is Henry? The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is a love letter to the memories we make over the course of a lifetime, and how the heart remembers what matters, even when the mind has long forgotten.
‘Ahead of them, their twilight years and a never-ending voyage in the lap of luxury.’
Author Joanna Nell of last year’s heartwarming ‘uplit’ novel, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, returns with a novel that draws on her past experience as a cruise ship doctor. The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is a story that takes a sensitive and informed approach to ageing, dementia, sea travel, love, relationships, memories and care for the elderly. Joanna Nell’s second novel truly touched my heart.
Evelyn, or Mrs Henry Parker as she would prefer to be addressed as, is married to a retired cruise ship doctor. Now the couple are free to enjoy life on board the Golden Sunset, without the pressure of Henry’s work commitments. Over the years, Evelyn has collected a whole host of memories from her cruising experience, which she delights in sharing with the old and new customers on board the Golden Sunset. However, Evelyn runs into trouble when she realizes that her believed Henry is missing. With no one on board prepared to help her, Evelyn sets off on a mission to discover where her dear husband could be hiding. It is an expedition that will take her to every nook and cranny on the Golden Sunset and it also becomes a trip into the past, as this search ignites so many memories from times gone by. Along the way, the reader learns about the ups and down of life for the Parkers on board a luxury liner. Evelyn’s memories represent a link to the past and the future, possibly providing the answer to Henry’s current whereabouts.
The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is a beautiful and touching ode to the past, ageing, memories, connections and life. Often the elderly, or those living with dementia, tend to be dismissed from literature. In The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, Joanna Nell ensures that she gives a voice to those who suffer from this incurable and very common disease. Although I was touched greatly by Evelyn and Henry’s story, I think above all, this book instilled a great sense of awareness and compassion around those who are dealing with, or have dealt with this disease. It provides us with an essential glimpse into the life of a woman coping with this disease, from an empathetic and enlightening angle.
It is a sad but true fact that many retired men and women choose to live out their twilight years on board a cruise ship, rather than enter a retirement or nursing home. The Last Voyage of Mrs. Henry Parker draws our attention to this alternative mode of living. What the novel also succeeds in is providing a snapshot of cruise ship life in the past. This jump into cruising in years gone by offered a gentle sense of nostalgia, which I enjoyed very much. With my past experience only extending to one cruise ship adventure, I also appreciated the insight into modern cruising life, complete with casinos, non-stop entertainment and endless dining facilities.
What made The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker unique and special was the mystery surrounding the disappearance the lead protagonist’s husband Henry. We know that Evelyn is confused and as the novel progresses, it becomes quite clear that she is an unreliable narrator. As the ship rolls into its destination, Evelyn’s memories fade in and out. We are taken on a journey into the past, which is clearly marked by good times and bad. These experiences help form a strong picture of Evelyn, her husband and their relationship. Evelyn’s clear recall of her past, in comparison to her confusion in the present, reminded me a great deal of my own Grandmother’s experiences in the last few years of her life. It was sad and heart-wrenching to watch, as well as read. However, this story is so tender, and I am certain that it will provide some semblance to readers directly affected by someone with dementia.
Evelyn herself is such an enigmatic figure. I adored taking a trip down memory lane and learning of her past, it was such a colourful life. Evelyn will instantly earn your affection, she is a formidable woman, who truly has a heart of gold underneath her confusion. There were times when I found Evelyn incredibly humorous, and I admit to having a chuckle or two at her escapades, as well as observations on life. I took an instant like to Evelyn and I genuinely wanted to find out where her husband was located. I had a couple of scenarios in mind, both of which didn’t end on a happy note, but I was satisfied by the conclusion.
Take a rolling journey on the high seas into the memory books of Mrs Henry Parker, as she tries in vain to locate her missing husband, with surprising results. The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is a highly recommended read from an author who writes with a kind heart and a sense of conviction.
The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker by Joanna Nell is published by Hachette Australia. Out now. $32.99
To learn more about the author of The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, Joanna Nell, visit here.
You can read my interview with Joanna Nell here.
*Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is book #146 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge