How do you define love? How much of yourself do you need to sacrifice to keep a friendship afloat? And can we ever truly understand the inner workings of other people’s lives? These are some of the questions that Laura McPhee-Browne explores in Cherry Beach, a gentle tale of female friendship.
The story is narrated by Ness, a shy young queer woman who is hopelessly in love with her straight best friend, Hetty. When the pair decide to embark on a new phase of their lives by moving from Melbourne to Toronto, their friendship is tested; the two women realise that they want different things and slowly start to drift apart. The ever-increasing distance between the two becomes the catalyst for Hetty, at first so charismatic and vivacious, to reveal her vulnerability and to subsequently fall into chaos.
The story of Ness and Hetty’s time in Toronto is interspersed with Ness’s adolescent memories of growing up with Hetty in Melbourne. Through spontaneous swimming trips and playground friendships to past loves and break-ups, a deeper portrait of the duo’s shared past and deep love for each other is painted, allowing for a greater insight into the devastating effects of their changing relationship.
Throughout the book, McPhee-Browne explores themes of love, friendship, and mental health with poetic insight, using water as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of life. Each chapter is named after a different body of water and the prose shimmers like reflected light. At times the languid pacing, overwrought metaphors, and deep introspection threaten to smother the plot. However, the dark undercurrent that is present throughout manages to push events towards the novel’s inevitable conclusion.
Ness’s voice is melancholy and distinct, and her experiences of sexual explorations are delicately and honestly portrayed. McPhee-Browne immerses the reader in the experience of awkward emotional growth with great tenderness and insight. At its core, Cherry Beach is a compelling examination of love and loss in all their guises.