While reading Laura McPhee-Browne’s novel Little Plum, I often thought of Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno, an intimate chronicle of psychosis after the birth of her child. “My son was eight days shy of his hundred-day celebration when I started to see devils in his eyes,” Cho writes in a book that renders, in frightening clarity, postpartum mental illness and motherhood’s capacity to disorient and depersonalise.
Little Plum explores similar themes: the internal conflicts of being a mother, its concealed hardships, and the strictures it can place on one’s sense of self. It is McPhee-Browne’s second novel, following her warmly received debut Cherry Beach, which won a NSW Premier’s Literary award. Where Cherry Beach takes place within the liminal period between adolescence and adulthood, Little Plum has a more mature focus: we follow a 29-year-old woman, Coral, who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and who falls unexpectedly pregnant after a brief romance.
Coral decides to keep the child, and the narrative is framed by her baby’s development and birth, spanning Coral’s early naivete, the psychological and physical strain of childbearing, and the complex emotional relationship that emerges between herself and her child. As she traverses Melbourne’s streets and cafes, and even briefly goes to Poland to visit a friend’s dying grandmother, she seems to be managing, albeit with a little trepidation. But Coral gradually betrays the disconnection she feels with the being growing inside her, by only referring to her child euphemistically: “a fig”, “a cherry”, “the little plum”.
McPhee-Browne brings alive not only the physical duress of pregnancy’s throes – “extreme thigh rub, extreme breast sweat, swollen feet so her shoes won’t fit, a hot body getting even hotter, with no relief” – but also the uncontrollable, unknowable nature of our fleshly vessels. Organs, fluids and bones, each with minds of their own, surface vividly. And via the idiosyncrasies of Coral’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, the mind, too, is revealed as one of our most intractable entities.
The novel is a compassionate character study but it also does not shy from more incomprehensible, darker realities. In one scene, Coral, who works as a journalist, is sent to report on a mother who has committed infanticide, killing her three-year-old child. As Coral reflects:
There is no sympathy, no empathy for the mother who did it – she is a monster, and that seems to be the only undisputed fact. Coral doesn’t think the mother is a monster, but she keeps it to herself. She thinks the mother is a human, surely a victim of illness and expectations.
This is taboo subject matter, and it is only later in the novel, after Coral has given birth, that McPhee-Browne attempts to evoke something tonally proximate. However, the author only dips lightly in such murky pools, and perhaps could have delved further.
McPhee-Browne handles mental illness sensitively in Little …….