Laura McPhee-Browne’s second novel, Little Plum, explores mothering through the truth of its protagonist, Coral, a woman with a chronic mental health condition and complicated upbringing. Beginning with a series of epigraphs that segue into a dream-diary extract, the novel’s opening firmly establishes the mother–daughter complex as its theme.
The dream diaries, which frequently feature Coral’s mother, Topaz, recur throughout Little Plum. The opening scene—about a mother who refuses to be one—demonstrates the psychic pain of the pair’s fraught connection. ‘Coral and Topaz have a gnarled relationship and have grown together over the years in different directions,’ the narrator observes. Later, Coral thinks to herself, ‘She loves her mother—she does, she does—but it is an exhausting kind of love.’ A quarter of the way into the novel, Coral’s imagined self physically confronts her mother, absorbing the pain of the conflict, ‘like shattering glass. Before I kill her …’ By the last entry, there is no sign of Topaz, only Coral’s own ‘hairy baby, crawling around the grass at my feet.’
From these short dream scenes we move swiftly to the main narrative, where Coral’s unsettling behaviours—exuberant hook-ups with virtual strangers and repetitive thoughts about murderous perpetrators—are eventually revealed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Initially, her actions seem feasible against the toxicity of her life—a job as a cadet journalist in an unsupportive workplace, a self-indulgent mother and friends, a soulless apartment smelling of plastic and fish, a barely present lover—until an unexpected pregnancy throws her selfhood into further disarray.
A social worker and counsellor by day, McPhee-Browne brings a refreshing and sensitive approach to mental health. Unlike books that exploit it for their character’s hamartia or use it as comic relief, McPhee-Browne keeps it real. Coral inhabits her condition as a fait accompli; it’s simply her everyday existence. Her pregnancy tracker app compares the size of her growing foetus with the eponymous ‘little plum’, among other fruits: ‘It has been a peach, an apple and a navel orange in recent weeks, but today it feels … like a banana.’ For Coral, these comparisons dehumanise the baby and heighten her dissociation. While medication helps manage her condition, pregnancy poses a new risk. ‘Could it hurt the baby?’ she asks her doctor, and as with all aspects of parenting, the answer is complicated. Yes, it could, but so would exposing it to nine months of acute stress. First, a mother must survive.
Throughout the novel, McPhee-Browne places an emphasis on Coral’s physical sensations, which helps balance its rich metaphorical motifs, fables and dream scenes. Her use of language is impeccable; dreamy as it is precise. Likewise, the book is inventive with its structure, with four sections representing the stages of pregnancy and birth, each featuring a semi-precious stone. When Coral and her childhood friend Amber travel to Polish seaside town Bobolin to visit Amber’s dying grandmother, we’re reminded that every family faces its own challenges of inheritance, expectation and conflict, demonstrating that Coral and Topaz’s frustrations are universal.
Upon arrival in Poland, Coral describes her foetus as, ‘a raspberry, then a cherry, then a kumquat, and now it is a flushed and seedy fig, so sweet she can taste it.’ She imagines eating the luscious fruit, then starts wondering if that makes her a cannibal. Coral’s obsession with the changes in her body, her impressions of heat and cold, the sensation of oral fixations such as eating, drinking and smoking, and how all of these invade and affect her sense of self are used to great effect. With exquisite detail, McPhee-Browne immerses us in Coral’s mind and behaviours to make sense of things that, from an outside perspective, could otherwise seem disturbed, raising the question: do worldly stresses exacerbate mental health conditions, or does suffering from mental health conditions make it that much harder to navigate worldly stress? Perhaps, this text infers, they go hand-in-hand.
As the umbilical cord stretches, tightens, loosens and frays, ultimately it is proven unbreakable. Little Plum adds itself to the pantheon of novels that explore the ambiguities of the mother–daughter relationship. Reflected in myriad cultural reckonings, from the pomegranate, to the apple, to this book’s little plum, the relentless cycle of birth–death–renewal, love–loss–growth is shown as inescapable.