Cherry Beach

Laura McPhee-Browne

Cherry Beach
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Cherry Beach

Laura McPhee-Browne

“We arrived on a Tuesday, I can remember that. I can remember Hetty’s hand in mine as we moved slowly down the steps of the escalator, as if standing completely still would have been harder than moving.”

Hetty and Ness, best friends since childhood, have left suburban Melbourne for the first time to live abroad. Hetty is charming and captivating, the life of the party. Ness is a wallflower, hopelessly in love with her. In the student quarter of Toronto, the pair take a room in a share house full of self-assured creatives. Hetty disappears into barkeeping work and a whirlwind nightlife, while Ness drifts aimlessly.

But when Ness finds Hope one day in the art gallery, an intense affair develops. There are new friends, too, and a job- at last her life starts to make some sense. And Hetty’s starts spectacularly to fall apart, in a mess of bad drugs and bad men.

As winter freezes the lakeside city, the dark undercurrents of Hetty’s character-abusive relationships, a dangerous obsession with bodies of water-become ever stronger. Ness may lose the person she loves more than anyone else in the world.

Beautifully written and intimate, Cherry Beach is a revelatory story of friendship and desire.  

Review

Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach is an assured debut with a distinct voice. I read it in two nights: cringing and sometimes gasping in recognition. Although set mainly in Toronto, the story also flashes back to a version of Australian adolescence that is deeply familiar. If you liked Sally Rooney’s Normal People but were left hankering for something local, queer, and (possibly) darker, Cherry Beach may do the trick.

The novel’s surface – its straightforward language, a plot circling around two childhood friends – belies its complex undercurrent. Ness and Hetty are what you might call inseparable friends, sharing almost every experience despite their different personalities and attitudes: Ness is awkward, unsure and physically unwieldy, at least in her own eyes, and Hetty is beautiful, trusting and easy to fall for – and many do. When they move to Toronto together for an adventure abroad, what has always in fact separated the two friends emerges. Ness’s complicated feelings for Hetty form a deep and painful well at the centre of their friendship, while Hetty’s chaotic vulnerability and trusting nature – back in Melbourne, always so entrancing – in Toronto blooms into something florid, disturbing and ultimately tragic.

Cherry Beach feels like a coming-of-age story and it’s no accident that it takes place, for the main part, in the characters’ twenties rather than adolescence, a time of messiness and self-discovery for many women. McPhee-Browne’s depiction of a queer coming-into-consciousness is extremely raw. Reading Cherry Beach I occasionally shuddered in recognition at the shame and vulnerability in such encounters, painful dynamics lurking under the surface of female friendship. While occasionally over-wrought, this novel is extremely easy to devour. A tender, intimate story that will leave its mark: a satisfying read from a debut author.


Ruth McHugh-Dillon works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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