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Cherry Beach
Laura McPhee-Browne (Text Publishing, available now)

Cherry Beach is our First Book Club pick for February – join us on 13 February at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library for a free in-conversation event with the author!

Inseparable since childhood, Hetty and Ness are best friends who have grown up to become very different young women. People seem to constantly regularly fall in love with party girl Hetty from afar, but the socially awkward Ness doesn’t get that sort of attention at all. Ness is in hopeless, unrequited love with Hetty, though neither acknowledges this. After Hetty goes through a terrible, emotionally abusive relationship, at the end of which her former partner dies by suicide, she and Ness move to Canada for a fresh start. Sharing a room in a bustling Toronto sharehouse, the two friends find jobs, create new routines, and begin to drift apart. Ness forms a number of new and meaningful relationships, and falls in love with a girl she meets in an art gallery. Hetty starts to spiral out of control, abusing alcohol and drugs, and seeking the company of men who treat her badly. In the throes of new romance and blossoming socially, Ness is frustrated and hurt by Hetty’s behaviour.

This is a book about modern love in its different guises: unrequited, romantic, and platonic. In Cherry Beach, love is dinner in a communal sharehouse; it is the moment a pebble breaks the surface of the water, and each of the ripples that grow around it. McPhee-Browne writes about love as something that can sneak up on you, and as something that can become all-encompassing, for better or worse. Through Ness and Hetty’s friendships and relationships, we see how one might be nourished by the people around them – or, as increasingly becomes true over the course of the novel, completely broken down.

This is a book about modern love in its different guises: unrequited, romantic, and platonic.

And while this is quite an introspective and emotional novel, the clarity of McPhee-Browne’s prose and the brisk pace of the plot make for an easily consumable read. This book is contemporary in its depiction of love, but also stylistically – it has a pared-back, straightforward and somewhat cinematic feeling (there’s always a very strong and well-developed sense of place; I almost felt like I’d visited Toronto just through the book’s descriptions of the city and its goings-on). But even so, Cherry Beach is the kind of story that bruises.

There is a lot of heavy subject matter in Cherry Beach – suicide, self harm, eating disorders, and domestic violence, alongside murkier, nameless things – but the clarity and simplicity of McPhee-Browne’s prose prevents the novel from ever sliding into overdramatic territory. Even in its darker moments, this is a beautiful, heartfelt book that will undoubtedly make an impact on readers who are at one of life’s many crossroads.

– Ellen Cregan

In The Clearing
J.P. Pomare (Hachette, available now)

Bleached white-blond hair cropped into bowl cuts and bobs; Children posed in a Von Trapp-esque family tableau wearing identical tracksuits. From the beginning of In the Clearing, J.P. Pomare makes no secret of drawing upon aspects of notorious Australian cult, The Family, in his latest literary thriller. For readers familiar with its history, within the first few pages these iconic images of the cult’s children may well flash into the mind’s eye.  Pomare runs the risk of dampening their interest through overfamiliarity with aspects of the book’s imagery, themes and characters and the assumption that the novel is a fictionalisation of an event already well covered in documentary and other media.  Yet this association turns out to be one of the novel’s strengths. Particularly with respect to plot, Pomare skilfully plays with the reader’s expectations to build a gripping and distinctive story with contemporary resonance.

In The Clearing is Pomare’s second novel following Call Me Evie, which won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. Like his debut, Pomare uses a split narrative format throughout In The Clearing to offer up snippets of information. The book opens with the journal of young teenager Amy and describes her role in the capture of a seven-year-old girl she calls Asha. Once brought to The Clearing, the diary details the child’s induction into the tightly controlled world Amy inhabits. It’s an existence overseen by the seemingly all knowing, heavy handed Adam and beautiful, god-like Adrienne.

Characters’ emotional trajectories are intensified by the claustrophobic humidity and menacing beauty of the Victorian bush.

Readers also enter the perspective of Freya Heywood, a forty-something-year-old yoga instructor, for whom the news of a child’s disappearance has triggered memories of her own absent child Aspen. Freya is further unnerved by the appearance of two young strangers on her isolated property located in the bushland fringes of Melbourne. Here she lives with her other son Billy and trained guard dog Rocky.

As the novel progresses, Pomare injects ever-increasing hints of potential cross-pollination between the two narratives. The elegant exploration of life in The Clearing and the sinister administration of abuse and manipulation of its members means readers are kept engrossed. Time spent immersed in Amy and Freya’s stories  is also rewarded by the inventive way in which the narratives eventually intertwine. The characters’ emotional trajectories – such Freya’s growing anxiety – are palpable; intensified by the sense of claustrophobic humidity and menacing beauty of the Victorian bush.

Pomare maintains a tight control over the threads of his novel throughout, though perhaps the fate of one character stretches believability, requiring some slight generosity on the part of the reader. In the Clearing is not only wonderfully crafted but insightful – engaging with the complexities of assigning moral responsibility to those immersed in an atypical reality.

– Carly Godden

Strange Hotel
Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber, available now)

In Strange Hotel, the new novel from award-winning Irish novelist Eimear McBride (A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing), a nameless woman reflects on her life against the backdrop of nondescript, nameless hotels around the world; places she has stayed in throughout her life, distinguished from one another through only a flimsy veil of time. The rooms have remained the same, the woman has not. Within the detritus of the hotel’s four walls, she grapples with her memories, desires and identity.

The hotel is a thoughtful and considered backdrop for McBride’s examination on reflection; ephemeral and fleeting by nature, they occupy a unique space in the collective zeitgeist – places where the past and the future can be either meaningless or don’t exist, the rooms themselves little pockets where time has the power to stand still, oases against the frenetic movement of 21st-century life. Hotels are both real and not real, here and not here, the perfect setting for McBride’s exploration of female autonomy and desire. Anonymous, her protagonist can experience loss, passion and regret with no boundaries, held in an eternal moment across the broad span of her life.

This is certainly not a novel designed for the casual reader, but rather one which deserves and requires careful consideration.

If Strange Hotel had been written 60 years ago, it would have been written by a man. Only in recent years have artists and writers who are not men been afforded a similar standard of self-reflection. While there are still plenty of limitations placed on non-male creators in the artistic sphere, it’s certainly refreshing that literature like Strange Hotel has space to exist. That said, perhaps in 2020 we’re less inclined to devote our time to a piece without a clear narrative arc or structure, with a nameless protagonist and quiet supporting players. With intricate prose, deep introspection and a dreamy quality in style, Strange Hotel establishes McBride as a spiritual successor to James Joyce; this is certainly not a novel designed for the casual reader, but rather one which deserves and requires careful consideration.

Yet a reader may struggle to find a focal point; with no protagonist, scenes or characters, it’s hard to ground oneself or the story within a real, tangible place. Certainly line by line, McBride’s prose is exemplary, displaying a strong command of language and tone and an insight into humanity not easily granted to other writers. But without any of the narrative tools commonly used as a frame or much ​of a concrete tether, Strange Hotel’s thesis is almost lost within an abstract haze.

– Georgia Brough