Coral, 29, journalist for a suburban Melbourne paper, online student of dream interpretation, becomes pregnant. The father is Jasper, a camera person for TV news who she went on two dates with, the first good, the second not so much, in a “not going to go anywhere” sort of way. Coral’s been doing the best she can with an OCD diagnosis she’s been managing since she was a young teenager. But the pregnancy throws her off balance, and as it progresses she increasingly has to fend off the intrusive thoughts she’s been fighting throughout her life. Surrounding her she has her mother, Topaz, and friends, the demonstratively affectionate Ruby and blunt but caring Amber. Like the friends who fly to Lana del Rey to paint her banisters every spring, these women surround Coral with a cloud of love and concern, even if they don’t always know exactly how to provide what she needs.
The plot of Little Plum follows Coral’s pregnancy. There are excursions: to the crime scenes Coral covers, a trip to Poland, but for much of the novel it’s just Coral and the creature growing inside her, changing month by month into different sized fruits. Pretty much everyone here is well meaning, everyone is rooting for Coral, no one is out to sabotage or undermine her. Nothing overly dramatic happens, except the Herculean tasks of creating a whole new person and Coral’s fight to stay well. This as a superficially gentle, at times almost unbearably tender novel, quietly focused on what is such a common but so unique and transformative event in so many people’s lives. But its carefully managed exterior, much like Coral’s, belies turmoil underneath.
Little Plum carefully observes the transformations of Coral’s body, the ebb and flow of hormones and the more mysterious tides that push and pull at our hearts and minds. McPhee-Browne is a brilliant writer of the wildness inside, whether it is the animal heat of sexual desire or something more banal, such as a moment when Amber says something patronising that undoes Coral:
Coral waits for a tram, and tries not to shriek or spit on the ground. She needs to do something quickly, though, before she disappears … her oldest friend’s ways make Coral wild sometimes. There’s an empty chip packet lying on the ground near her feet. She bends down with effort, picks it up and scrunches it, before throwing it down again — her very existence a rebellion.
In this, her second novel, McPhee-Browne also cements herself as an exceptional writer of mood. It is claustrophobic to be stuck by Coral’s side as she journeys in and out of darkness, but there’s also its wonderfully soothing warmth and effortless witchy-ness. At one point the novel casually mentions the moon is Coral’s familiar; the fact that everyone Coral knows is named for a precious stone makes complete sense; “omens flock, like owlet-nightjars after dusk in the botanical gardens”. As in Cherry Beach, Little Plum is also a vivid portrayal of mental illness, by turns mundane, confounding and occasionally terrifying. Hewing close to Coral’s perspective, we often only get a sense of how things are going for her by mentions of her friends’ and mother’s reactions. It’s a complicated assessment of the support systems for mothers, the “hardest of all jobs” McPhee-Browne notes in the acknowledgements.
Like Coral sometimes does to those who are close to her, Little Plum holds us at a slight distance, a close third person that means we witness everything but are unable to intervene as much as we might like. At the end of the day, as surrounded by love we might be, we have to forge our own path.
Gay rating: 2/5 for a major queer character.