Cherry Beach begins on a beach. Not a warm, summer day by the sea but cold. Freezing in fact – there’s a discarded sock frozen solid. A young woman walks into the water, longing for the refreshment of salt water, the “almost-moan” of an ocean at night. Except this beach is not on an ocean. As we find out in the following chapter, this Cherry Beach is likely in Toronto, which means it is on Lake Ontario, one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The lake/ocean confusion is a metaphor made literal, but what the metaphor is for shifts throughout this watery, fluid novel.
Cherry Beach follows two young women in their early 20s, Ness and Hetty, as they move to Toronto from Melbourne to live. Hetty is by all accounts tall and beautiful (and skinny, we are reminded regularly). Ness, the narrator, is apparently a mousy lump by comparison. They have been best friends since primary school, have been through all the rites of passage together, and this is to be the next. They move into a share house of seven, share a room and a bed, gets jobs at bars and cafes, and explore their new city. It’s not long after 2012 – the house cat is named after Whitney Houston who has recently died.
Ness is a walking apology of a person, a single child who grew up in a Melbourne suburb with a silent father and a depressed mother. Hetty has a dark past – an alcoholic father, a boyfriend who killed himself when she left him. In a moment of self-awareness, a character describes Hetty “like she’s playing a part in a sad indie film”. She is obsessed with the lake. “It must be the ocean,” she says, “It feels like it is.” At first this seems simply to reflect Hetty’s apparently endearing propensity for whimsy. But gradually it takes on more sinister implications. Perhaps the instability between the two types of water reflects an instability in Hetty’s mind. McPhee-Browne’s depiction of Hetty’s mental health is compelling and troubling. There are hints of drugs and trauma, but it is all the more terrifying for being inexplicable.
Cherry Beach is ultimately a tragedy, of unrequited love, of innocence lost, of our inability to help or change people. It’s a frustrating and painful depiction of early 20s life. When else are you so self-absorbed, yet so insecure? You just want to shake and hug these characters, particularly Ness, whose ugly-sidekick moping and adoration of Hetty is relentless. Ness’s love for Hetty, which is returned but not the way she desires, threatens to erase both of them, to blind Ness to the tragedy happening in front of her. Every time someone or something tempts her away, she swerves back into the vortex. Only at length does Ness retrieve something of herself.
I was reminded of other stories of annihilating young love, like Call Me By Your Name, in which the two summer lovers literally desire to become each other (except with a happier ending), or Sally Rooney’s novels. Cherry Beach is also a quintessentially Melbourne novel. Even though most of it takes place in Canada, Melbourne pervades every scene: Ness’s memories, swimming at dams and rivers with Hetty. Hetty’s favourite painting by Canadian artist Emily Carr is a landscape that “could be Australia”, although the artist has never been there. It reminded me a lot of another recent debut novel, The Adversary by Ronnie Scott, and they complement each other well in their depiction of queer millennial life. Just as one Melbourne rite of passage is a share house in Brunswick, another is the year overseas working in another Anglophone country.
Unlike The Adversary, Cherry Beach is mostly devoid of humour. It is fairly downbeat, the only relief – kind but quirky characters, the beauty of the city and seasons – serves simply to contrast with the inevitable tragedy. McPhee-Browne’s writing is carefully crafted, sometimes revelatory in its observations of people and place. Sometimes I wanted more lightness, but it’s an impressive commitment to a claustrophobic mood. We are trapped with Ness in her head, longing for something to break us out, but not quite ready to leave.
Gay rating: 5/5 for lesbian desire, relationships and sex, and other minor queer characters