Rocks and fruit are the central images in Laura McPhee-Browne’s second novel. Characters are named after stones – Amber, Topaz, Flint – and, in the parlance of pregnancy apps, fruit tracks the growth of a new life: peach, apple, banana and, most of all, plum. Such sentimentality can verge on twee but, in Little Plum, the Melbourne-based author counteracts it with the harsh realities and complications of mental illness.
The novel follows 29-year-old journalist Coral through an unexpected pregnancy that results from a two-night stand. There is a claustrophobic paranoia in this character that intensifies the closer she comes to giving birth. Her obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifests as gruesome intrusive thoughts, and later her experience with psychosis, are depicted frankly – the former especially is a rare realistic portrayal of a well-known but misunderstood condition. Strange, often violent dream sequences demarcate the book’s sections.
Coral’s pregnancy is juxtaposed with the illness of her friend’s grandmother that culminates in a trip to Poland. Casting impending new life and the inevitable arrival of death against one another creates a haunting, discombobulating sense of the cyclical nature of existence.
As in her debut novel, 2020’s Cherry Beach, McPhee-Browne draws on art that influences her characters in significant ways. In this case, it is the work of Polish visual artist Emilia Bartkowska. Coral sees a drawing of a “little creature” at an exhibition and is immediately struck by a protective need. The creature becomes both muse and judge, hovering like a spectre as Coral’s actions and thoughts become increasingly erratic.
Pregnancy and motherhood have been popular topics in both fiction and non-fiction of late, and unplanned pregnancy is a particularly ripe area for exploration and character development. Locally, Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days and Allee Richards’ Small Joys of Real Life have explored the subject. McPhee-Browne’s book has more in common with the latter, as both protagonists, unsure at first, feel a gradual tenderness and fierce protectiveness for the lives growing within them. What the author does especially well is portray the coexistence of this parental love with an ongoing, often frightening battle with mental illness. It is depicted not as something to fix but something to understand and live with.
Throughout the novel, McPhee-Browne hints at something terrible to come, but the climax never quite arrives. The terror and beauty are in the journey, which is both quiet and immense.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Laura McPhee-Browne, Little Plum".
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