The blurb for Cherry Beach, Melbourne-based author Laura McPhee-Browne’s debut novel, reads like the most tired kind of chick lit. It promises melodrama – in the form of lifelong friendships torn asunder, unrequited love and men gone bad, all set to the tune of “dark undercurrents” – albeit with a queer twist.
Yet Cherry Beach is anything but – proving you can never judge a book by its back cover. Instead of offering histrionics, this quiet, precise novel reaches deep into the recesses of female friendship and finds it wanting. Although at times painful, even awkward, the sentiments McPhee-Browne explores are always accurate – so much so it feels at times like being punched in the gut.
The novel begins with hope on a Tuesday in Toronto: childhood best friends Hetty and Ness, raised in the suburbs of Melbourne, have moved to Canada. They see snow for the first time (a disappointing dirty heap on a street corner); move into a big, chaotic, generous share house; get jobs; have affairs; and muddle through a new city. While Hetty is gracious, tall and magnetic – the kind of person who “pioneered tenderness” in others – Ness, the narrator, views herself as the opposite. She bemoans her thick eyebrows, her wonky front teeth and her woolly hair, and lives in a state of anxiety over the smallest of social interactions. “I was sure I wasn’t something to get over,” she says at one point, plaintively, when musing a love interest she has rejected.
The two have a cloying closeness, welded together by Ness’s unhealthy infatuation. In Toronto, however, the friendship starts to fracture. Ness finds herself exploring her attraction to women with a new girlfriend; Hetty, meanwhile, loses herself. Ness begins to truly see Hetty for the first time: not as a glamorous friend who never bruises, physically or emotionally, but as someone flawed and unhappy.
Tying everything together is McPhee-Browne’s exacting language, which is clear and clean but also evocatively decadent. A small kitchen on a farm clings to a hill “like a clam”; Ness’s girlfriend, Faith, is “pretty in a noiseless way”; when Ness eats a hot Korean broth she loses herself in the “shouty red of it”. For all this sensuality, grief and shame sit at the heart of Cherry Beach. As Ness puts it, Hetty is someone who doesn’t know “how to be with sadness” – a truism that has tragic consequences.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Laura McPhee-Browne, Cherry Beach". Subscribe here.