Review of Little Plum by Laura McPhee-Browne – the taboos of motherhood | Australian books
wWhile 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 son. “My son was eight days away from his Hundred Days celebration when I started seeing devils in his eyes,” writes Cho in a book that renders, with frightening clarity, postpartum mental illness and motherhood’s ability to disorient and depersonalize.
Little Plum explores similar themes: the internal conflicts of being a mother, her hidden struggles and the restrictions she can place on her 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. While Cherry Beach takes place in 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 suddenly becomes pregnant. after a short romance.
Coral decides to keep the baby and the narrative is framed by her child’s development and birth, encompassing Coral’s early naivete, the psychological and physical strain of pregnancy, and the complex emotional relationship that emerges between her and her child. As she traverses the streets and cafes of Melbourne, and she also travels briefly to Poland to visit a friend’s dying grandmother, she seems to be coping, albeit with some trepidation. But Coral gradually betrays the disconnect she feels with the being growing inside her, referring to her child only euphemistically: “a fig”, “a cherry”, “the little plum”.
McPhee-Browne brings to life not only the physical constriction of pregnancy throes—”extreme thigh chafing, extreme breast sweating, swollen feet so her shoes don’t fit, a hot body getting hotter still, with no relief”—but also the uncontrollable, unknowable nature of our carnal vessels. Organs, fluids and bones, each with its own mind, emerge vividly. And through Coral’s obsessive-compulsive disorder idiosyncrasies, 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 away from more incomprehensible and 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 baby. As Coral reflects:
There is no sympathy, no empathy for the mother who made 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 that the mother is a human being, surely a victim of the disease and of expectations.
This is a taboo subject, and it is only later in the novel, after Coral has given birth, that McPhee-Browne attempts to conjure up something tonally next. However, the author only dips lightly into such murky pools and perhaps he could have elaborated further.
McPhee-Browne handles mental illness as sensitively in Little Plum as he did in Cherry Beach. Coral’s psychological disorder is not used as a plot device, nor is she reduced to a diagnosis. There is respect and familiarity, presumably informed by the author’s work as a social worker and counselor. Indeed, in the novel’s acknowledgments, McPhee-Browne thanks the women she worked with at a mental health service that specializes in perinatal anxiety and depression.
However, his choice to use third-person narration, which may have been intended to maintain a respectful distance, affects a sense of detachment. We often hover above Coral, with limited access to her interior. Also, Little Plum unabashedly delves into saccharineness: McPhee-Browne’s penchant for twee imagery can be cloying – Coral’s baby who helps her with her loneliness is “like a little hand holding hers”; her body sweating is “cry a little”. The novel also occasionally meanders into extraneous detail or digressions, and in places it seems to need more careful editing.
McPhee-Browne has put motherhood and perinatal mental health in a bright light, one that leaves nothing obscured but still offers warmth to the subject. She has flaws, but Little Plum is easily readable, quickly engaging, and offers a vibrant font in Coral. McPhee-Browne deftly articulated the unique experience of becoming a parent and the vulnerability of motherhood, all without shying away from her heck.