Reviewed: Laura McPhee-Browne, Cherry Beach (Text Publishing)
Faith and I smiled at each other and started to move away from the crowd, down Queen Street towards the east. I took her hand, small and shy, and held it. It felt good to be out with her, and to show anyone who wanted to look what we were to each other.
—Laura McPhee-Browne, Cherry Beach
In a Readings blog review of Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were, Melbourne bookseller Amy Vuleta jokes, ‘If you ever find yourself wondering, ‘Where are all the lesbians in books?’, you’ll find some of them here, just living their lives.’ It’s a good joke, because it’s difficult to find queer women in all literature—especially here in Australia. Even in this era of ‘woke publishing’ (or what might more reasonably be called ‘responsibly inclusive publishing’), queer women can still feel underserved by the offerings in most local bookstores.
Cherry Beach, an impressive debut from Melbourne author Laura McPhee-Browne, is not afraid to present unadulterated queer womanhood in a manner Australian audiences may not often encounter in their local fiction. We have met some queer teen girls, presented to us by Erin Gough in her novels The Flywheel and Amelia Westlake, and by Victorian Premier’s Literary Award–winner Alison Evans in their recent stunner, Euphoria Kids. Ellen van Neerven’s Stella Prize–shortlisted Heat and Light is populated by queer women loving (and not loving) and living, though their romantic relationships are not often the focus of van Neerven’s sharp stories. And, of course, we have the inimitable Dorothy Porter’s noir verse novels, including the great The Monkey’s Mask, which features lesbian PI protagonist Jill Fitzpatrick. Discovering Jill—and Porter’s verse in general—is a little like the expression contained in ‘Ring of Keys’, a charming song in the Broadway version of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; it’s a heady, lip-smacking delight that someone so handsome, so butch, exists for you to desire.
The feeling of being reflected this way in the pages of Australian fiction isn’t common—at least not for me, nor for many of the queer women I’ve asked. Representation in the art we encounter has been elevated to paramount importance for many when considering what to watch, read, listen to, program or pay for—not because it’s impossible to see outside our own experiences, but rather because feeling connection with an artwork is a fundamental way in which we relate to the culture (and world) around us. The fewer queer women we encounter in Australian fiction, the more we begin to ask, as Vuleta did in her book review, ‘Where are all the lesbians [in publishing]?’
Often, when we don’t feel ourselves reflected in the art we are consuming, we go looking for work that at least hints at including us. Subtextual queering, sometimes called ‘queer baiting’ when it is done very superficially, can attract audiences who crave morsels of reflection and understanding in a narrative that may have buried crumbs beneath the surface. Subtextual queering brought many gay men to BBC’s Sherlock—at least before it became so overtly tacky in how it was attempting to dupe an audience to stand for a romantic implausibility. Subtextual queering mostly happens, either intentionally or not, in the muddiness of intense homosocial relationships, which are always read in a heteronormative context as completely platonic. Queers, however, know better.
It’s perhaps a little cultural joke that an ‘intimate female friendship’ between two fictional characters often acts as a stand-in for unaddressed romantic stirrings. Whatever the author’s intent, this relational shorthand deprives readers of an opportunity to experience unbridled female queerness. Of course, there are a good deal of genuine, worthy ‘intimate female relationships’ that are platonic and perhaps worthy of exploration in novel form. Adrienne Rich argued intimate friendship should be added to the ‘continuum’ of lesbianism, for its focus on a bond between women (though non-romantic) to the exclusion of men. But this intense homosocial bond is often lazy shorthand for implied queerness among women in the arts. I’m moved more by Janice Ristock’s identification of ‘lesbian invisibility/impossibility’ in culture: the idea that women’s relationships with each other are viewed as so intractably homosocial, even a kiss between them could be considered platonic.
When Emily Bitto’s Stella Prize–winning novel The Strays was released in 2014, my housemate and I had a probing discussion about the nature of the ‘intense friendship’ between its protagonist, Lily, and her best friend, Eva Trentham. Lily, who comes from dowdy, conservative stock, is enamoured with the vitality, excess and lawlessness in the Trenthams’ artist-commune household, despite her sense of ‘a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling’. The Trenthams’ wild life may draw back the curtain for Lily, but it’s her friendship with Eva that cracks her open. Bitto’s writing has them ‘chaste but intensely physical’ and ‘draped constantly about each other’s bodies’. At nights they sleep tangled together: ‘an intimate, entwined existence’.
Bitto’s novel is not explicit about Lily and Eva’s attachment to one another; readers are left to wonder how much of Lily’s growing jealousy towards her friend is due to her rapid maturation (and, in Lily’s view, irresponsibility) and growing distance from Lily, and how much is due to the increasing sense that Lily has romantic feelings for Eva that her friend does not return. All of this is in the subtext beneath the homosocial melodrama Bitto constructs around Lily and Eva. And it’s clear in the varied responses from critics and readers that no-one knew quite how to read their ‘intense love’ for each other. An NPR review concludes that their attachment is romantic, and fades when Eva shows an interest in men, while reviews in the New York Times and the Guardian simply tout the book as a compelling portrayal of ‘female friendship’.
I was reminded of the response to Bitto’s novel when I spotted a spray of publicity for McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach. The book, which centres on the adventures of inseparable friends Ness and Hetty on their first international adventure away in Toronto, is described by Text Publishing as a ‘revealing story of friendship and desire’. And yet, even with a blurb that bears all the hallmarks of subtextual queering, what Cherry Beach provides is a straightforward, tactile insight into female queer awakening. It’s a lesson, as Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore notes in her Saturday Paper review, that ‘you can never judge a book by its back cover’.
Ness, the book’s narrator, is a frighteningly awkward queer woman, who bemoans her ‘woolly hair’, ‘thick eyebrows’ and self-described outsized body shape; Hetty is beautiful, vulnerable and beloved by many, including Ness, but woefully straight. Their trip to Toronto exposes the widening chasm in their imagined inseparability: that Ness feels things for Hetty that the latter does not return, and that Hetty’s presence in their relationship is unequal, because of Ness’s affection for her. When Ness first experiences what it’s like to have her love for a woman returned—in a sharply rendered relationship with London-born Torontonian Faith—her comprehension about the distance in her relationship with Hetty grows. This is compounded by Hetty’s worsening mental ill-health, which might feel like the most melodramatic part of McPhee-Browne’s novel to anyone who has not viewed a loved one in the midst of psychosis or mania.
Because the story feels as if it is going to play out in a familiar fashion, the surprise of a precise, visceral exploration of female queerness was a shock that moved me to tears. As a dedicated reader of romance, both literary and commercial, it’s rare to be surprised by a love story. Ness’s romance with Faith is not quite unique as a love story, but it is thrilling for the space it affords a young queer character to move out of subtext (the unspoken love for a same-sex best friend) and into text.
McPhee-Browne teases the reader early with ruminations on Hetty’s desirability: her ‘silky head’ and ‘long body’, her face ‘clean and bright, even though she was wilting’. When Hetty smiles Ness feels ‘something winged soar up towards my throat’. But these observations are abstract and distanced, and as time passes Ness finds herself at odds with ‘everyone around’ her, as people are ‘touching and kissing and lying in bed together’. It’s only when Ness meets Faith, the ‘small woman’, ‘pale and possibly plain’ with a distinctive laugh, at the Art Gallery of Ontario that the focus in Cherry Beach shifts radically.
When Ness and Faith meet, McPhee-Browne takes what is so far unspoken about Ness’s queerness and moves it into deliciously erotic text. Their trip together around the art gallery is visceral: ‘I felt myself spreading out around us,’ Ness, the narrator, writes, ‘covering every piece with my eyes and my sticky fingers and the saliva trails of my tongue’. After she meets Faith, Ness moves ‘differently’; she’s ‘green and lush inside’. Their first date takes similar slight movements and observations Ness performs with Hetty from the abstract to the tactual. Ness describes, ‘Once we were drunk in a way that made my throat open, we kissed in the dirty white corridor outside where an old man sat peeling carrots on a milk crate, and walked hand in hand across the pedestrian streets until she left me at my door.’
The prickly, blunt prose McPhee-Brown uses to open Ness up to Faith tells us that Ness has also opened herself up to her own tactile queerness:
She reached out to hold my face with both her little hands and kissed it all over, all down my nose and along each cheek to my forehead. My pelvis and kidneys and lungs burned for more of her. I didn’t care that there were people at every table around us who had only just realised we were lovers and not friends, and that their faces would probably show me how they felt about that. I didn’t look and I didn’t care.
This protagonist, who is characterised by her intense inability to bear the scrutiny of attention, comes to dismiss—or even to defy—the unwanted attention of those around her when she is with Faith.
I don’t think it’s an accident (though perhaps a bit of unwitting lateral thinking) that Ness’s queerness moves from the common subtexual shorthand of the ‘intense female friendship’ to a raw and open love affair, rendered in McPhee-Browne’s lusciously evocative prose. It’s a neat subversion of the lesbian impossibility—the notion that we need not question the innate homosociality of a close female relationship—which mirrors a common queer journey from unspoken observations to openness and self-expression.
McPhee-Browne also gives us, with Ness, another queer woman hero to add to the slim but beloved catalogue scrounged from Australian literature’s meagre offerings. And it’s exhilarating to feel, at last, truly ‘seen’. •
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance journalist, author and academic. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land, and tweets from @mdixonsmith.