A new gem in a great tradition of women’s writing

A new gem in a great tradition of women’s writing

Laura McPhee-Browne’s second novel is about a pregnant young woman who has an inner life that’s as rich and colourful as a precious stone. In fact, all the novel’s characters – they’re an alluring and multifaceted bunch – are named after semi-precious stones and have their own particular energy.

Coral finds herself pregnant after a two-night stand with Jasper, to the mystification of her friend Amber and Coral’s mother Topaz. Little Plum evokes with a jewel-like clarity and luminescence the process of nurturing a new life within your body and finding your consciousness transformed by it.

Laura McPhee-Browne writes as vividly about life in the outside world as she does about life in the womb. Credit:Sarah Walker

McPhee-Browne’s first novel, Cherry Beach, was also a domestic, introspective novel with a focus on the hopes and dreams you take with you when you travel, the friends you make along the way, and what happens when you fall in love with friends whom you know inside-out. Queer love and female friendship are a signature theme for her, and she uses her influences with confidence.

A McPhee-Browne novel is a bit like an Australian twist on an Alice Adams story. The American published Careless Love in 1966, a pioneering novel about divorce that was criticised by Saul Bellow for showing characters who live “completely in relationships”.

But this critique fails to apprehend the adventure and enchantment of these relationships, how our social worlds can be miniature worlds of counter-cultural continents and turbulent seas. McPhee-Browne’s is also reminiscent of Mary McCarthy, whose bestselling 1963 novel, The Group, showed young women experiencing a new world of freedom made possible by contraception and sisterhood.

Little Plum by Laura McPhee-Browne.

But post-war women’s fiction has come a long way, baby. Writing about pregnancy is a great tradition that stretches from Sylvia Plath’s poems about the baby that love set going “like a fat gold watch” to the intensity of friendships and parenting in Elena Ferrante’s Naples. It’s a tradition shaped by transparent honesty, bold clarity, and deep connection.

The perfect metaphor for this tradition emerges in Little Plum when Coral’s best friend gives her a piece of amber. Coral places it next to the baby’s bed. The amber, like the baby, is a little world. This monument to frozen time and stilled life becomes a talisman for the novel’s pregnant woman, as though a womb itself is a precious gem that holds a little life.

McPhee-Browne has an eye for setting. In her hands, pregnancy is another country, a country with only two citizens but many visitors. An interlude in a small Polish town with a close friend shows how relationships between women are shaped by the bonds of mother and child but textured by the inner life and the choices we make as individuals.

McPhee-Browne also writes movingly of adversity. Later, Little Plum’s protagonist faces challenges to her mental health as a pregnant woman and new mother, and in McPhee-Browne’s hands these are an opportunity for affirmation and intimacy with the self as well as others. Each peripheral character, from the Polish grandmother to the prenatal psychiatrist, is memorable. These storylines show how many hands are involved in the birthing of stories as well as babies.

McPhee-Brown is as good on the outside world as she is on the womb. Coral is working for a local newspaper when she gets pregnant. In an era when relationships become content-factories for social media posts and private experience is monetised to fill demands we used not to know we had, local news doesn’t have the cachet it once did. But the scenes McPhee-Browne stages in this workplace setting are companionable, familiar and sometimes ironic, as well as full of incident and detail.

Little Plum comes with a blurb from novelist Ronnie Scott: “With dark insight and masterly grace,” he writes, “Laura McPhee-Browne reminds us that our bodies can know things that we don’t, that experience can save or afflict us, and that possession can invest us with beautiful and terrible things.” It’s a balance that McPhee-Browne handles with great skill. She never lets us forget that pregnancy is an inside-out transformation. We give birth to life as surely and mysteriously as minerals are compressed into gems.

Little Plum by Laura McPhee-Browne is published by Text, $32.99.

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