It is a true gift to be able to make a book feel like life. Now I don’t mean a different version of the life I am living, or perhaps an alternate or parallel reality, I mean that this book feels like a life that has been lived. I don’t know how to describe it without sounding like a lunatic but this novel made my heart hurt so much I felt like the events were truly happening to me.
Ness and Hetty are best friends and have been since childhood. Together, they have experienced essentially all of what life has to offer: childhood whims, highschool yarns, post-school freedoms, love, heartbreak—the works. Hetty and Ness are soulmates, destined for one another. They balance each other out. Neither exist in part, or are lacking, but together they create something new.
The friends leave Melbourne, Australia for the first time together to live abroad in Toronto, Canada. It is up to the reader to interpret if they are running away from something or towards something else, but to me, I think perhaps it could be both. Both grappling with different forms of heartbreaks.
Love is a prominent theme in this novel, not only in the conventional romantic way but in the friend-soulmate way, as I mentioned before. I think perhaps the reason I felt so connected to the lives of these two girls is because I feel as though it is very similar to a relationship I have with my best friend. I mean I am not secretly in love with her, but I do feel as though our souls are connected. You know what they are experiencing without them needing to say so, you know what they are going to do before they do it (hi Sarina never reading the books I continuously recommend knowing you will like them if you give them a chance). The relationship and its ongoings are intrinsic, and completely subconscious.
So on this thought, this is why this book felt like life to me. The relationship didn’t feel like it was manufactured or created for the purpose of the story. It felt as though it was the soul of the novel. I don’t think this book could've worked with any relationship other than Hetty and Ness. McPhee-Browne explores the role of friendship-love in growth and development. How it is completely essential, and yet it can only do so much. Without the presence of each other, neither Hetty or Ness would have ended up in half the experiences from their lives, let alone living in Canada together. McPhee-Browne highlights something to us that we all already know, that friends can change the course of life. That is not to say it does not go on without your friends, but I think friends are a driving force to allow ourselves to personify the exact person we need to be (PSA if your friends don’t do this for you, they need to GTFO).
Excluding the prologue, the book is narrated from Ness’ perspective. From this we see the pedestal (I say that in a positive way because we are here to HYPE our friends) she puts Hetty on. She idolizes her, sees the best in her and believes she exists above the rest of the world. In turn with that, despite how essential they are to one another, Ness feels somewhat inadequate to Hetty, she thinks she isn’t as beautiful, isn’t as likeable. Ness sees the friendship in the framework that she needs Hetty, not that they need each other. So on this idea that Ness sees herself as less, something she manufactured in her mind herself, I think it’s a really interesting basis upon which this novel builds.
Cherry Beach is not only about two friends as a unit, but also their growth as individuals. It sheds light on this through the lens of friendship, how that plays a role and how much of a role it should play. Despite Hetty being portrayed as the popular, perfect, everyone-wants-her girl, through Ness’ perspective we see that her life has not been easy and she has faced many hardships and trauma. Hetty experiencing sexual abuse is hinted at, something she basically denies/ignores, as well as a recently ended abusive relationship. These two things alone I think are enough to drive someone over the edge of being okay but it is clear her home life isn’t particularly great either. I think these moments really highlight the role Ness plays in Hetty’s life; it is almost as if Ness doesn’t realize how she stabilizes and is a pillar of normality for Hetty.
It seems the trajectory of the girls' sense of self (or rather the Ness’ sense of who they each are, according to her perspective) switches when they move to Canada. So perhaps, in connection to my idea about running away or towards something, each girl is doing the opposite. Hetty was running away from the trauma that came with her ex-boyfriend, and Ness is running towards a more exciting and adventurous life. In Canada, Ness is more present. She is finally in an environment, or at least feels a shift, that allows her to be engaged with her environment. She actively pursues friendship with her roommates, forging strong connections at work, and falling in love. There is a determination to be better, to have a better existence for Ness, I think, that comes from a place of being more excited about life. Whereas Hetty was instantly distant. A new job isolates her from Ness and the rest of this new life she has walked into. Hetty is not present or participating in the newness of this adventure. In these early stages in Canada we see that their friendship dynamic is not the same as it once was. There is no love lost, but for Ness she is realizing that she doesn’t need Hetty in order to have experiences, or rather she is forced to realize this as Hetty begins to isolate herself. In the same vein, perhaps Hetty is realizing how much she needs Ness, but in this moment of vulnerability instead of giving in to this need, she rebels against it and aims to find comfort elsewhere, to avoid disrupting Ness’ newfound comfortability.
So as Ness’ life seemingly falls into place, Hetty’s spirals and this is where we get to the hard part of the discussion. It is clear that Hetty is not doing well, she isolates herself from Ness, she is consuming copious amounts of drugs, spending time with bad men and not taking care of herself at all really. This is where I consider the question, what obligation does Ness have to take care of Hetty? It is really tough to consider the role a friend must play in another friend's demise. How much can you really expect from your best friend/soulmate? Now, regardless of the answer to these questions, it doesn’t make the demise anyless tragic. But I think through this dynamic and demise, McPhee-Browne highlights the idea of the kinds of power we have as humans, or rather don’t have. In a positive sense, the power Ness has to branch out into a life that isn/t dominated by Hetty. However, in a negative sense it highlights how much power we don’t have when it comes to helping those in need. Through Ness, we are given the unfortunate duty of seeing a friend devolve and cease to be the person they once were, and the person Ness once loved so much. With this I found myself considering if Ness could have done more to help? And what responsibility did she have over this situation? I think McPhee-Browne shows us that we are never completely in control of a situation, you can try and help but if your friend is not willing to help themselves, there is only so much you can do. With this though, it is important to be reminded and remember that lack of help does not illicit possession of fault. It is easy to feel as though it is your fault something happened because you didn’t do more, but this is not the case at all. This reality then highlights the pain Ness, in turn, must grapple with and therefore the pressure she would feel as a friend. It is considerations like these that are the most, for lack of a better word, fucked, because you must make the choice between your soulmate and yourself. But given the choice, I would honestly say I’d move heaven and earth for my best friend if she needed it.
I think this novel is important because it reminds the reader that even if you want to move heaven and earth you can’t, however, the intention is important and essential when rationalizing your role in such a dynamic. However, despite this, things that happen around you aren’t your fault and you have extremely limited control and power in the grand scheme of things. I think it’s pretty bleak to consider this reality, especially in the framework of trying to save your best friend from herself but also Ness did the best she could. That’s all we can ever ask of our best friends right? To support us the best they can? I found this novel to be extremely raw, as I have said, I felt the emotion to my core and while I have talked about alot of the really difficult parts of friendship, McPhee-Browne shows us the best parts of friendship too. McPhee-Browne’s ability to encapsulate a friendship of this depth in a book of 223 pages is a true talent, and a testament to her own writing as Cherry Beach is her debut.
This book was truly a gift. It reminded me of my own friendships, it reminded me of my own power and the power I have to uplift my friends, and put them on the pedestal they deserve. But it also reminded me of the reality of what I can do in life, which is only my best. Everything that happens around me, will happen around me no matter how much I wish I could change it. This book will always remain close to my heart and I hope it acts as a reminder to hug your friends a little tighter every time we see them. Cherry Beach was a true pleasure and whilst it hurt my heart, I will smile because I am grateful for the friendships I have that are synonymous to the ones that writers choose to write about.
223 pages. 2020.