Cherry Beach begins with its central characters, Ness and Hetty, arriving in Toronto in a Canadian winter. I read it on one of those May weekends in Melbourne where the mornings are frosty before the day blossoms into warm sunshine, and felt the weather perfectly reflecting the change of seasons in McPhee-Browne’s Toronto. As Ness was unsure and self-conscious and lonely in the winter, my joints ached with cold; as she grows in confidence and finds her footing in a new city while summer arrives, I felt the sun warming my back.
Cherry Beach is a novel to devour, easy to read despite its deep vein of melancholy. Although the characters are in their early twenties, both Ness and Hetty have a type of emotional immaturity that makes this a coming-of-age novel. Ness’ voice is reflective, telling the story from the position of her wiser self. She notes ‘my thick eyebrows, the cross-over of my front teeth, the wooly hair that sat unbrushed against my shoulders: these were my messages to the world that I didn’t care, that I wasn’t the kind of person who worried what others thought of them. I can see now that this was just a different type of vanity’.
Ness’ voice – her uncertainty, her yearning – plants itself in the reader, and I felt her devastation at the loss of Hetty. ‘It was tiring being vulnerable and raw’ she says. Ness is dependent on the more dominating spirit of Hetty – ‘since we were young, Hetty had been the one people looked at’. But as we flash back to their lives in Melbourne, we see that their relationship was fractured even more moving to Canada. Ness is in love with Hetty, but knows it will always be unrequited. As Hetty settles into the new life, finding a job and making new friends that Ness doesn’t like, Ness finds herself adrift. But she finds her own employment at ‘a small, strange cafe… daggy enough for [her] to feel [she] could ask for a job without the usual sense of inadequacy’, and begins to develop her own network of friends. It feels inevitable to the reader that Ness’ slow rise will be paralleled by Hetty’s downfall, and we keenly feel Ness’ confusion, sense of betrayal, and eventual devastation.