Sleepless in Stringybark Bay by Susan Duncan

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

When I first read the title of this book I wondered if it would be like an Australian version of the 1993 movie, Sleepless in Seattle, with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. This book by Australian writer, Susan Duncan, is nothing like that story.

Susan Duncan has had tragedy to face in her life which she has dealt with by publishing two bestselling memoirs, Salvation Creek and its sequel The House at Salvation Creek.  She has now turned her hand to writing fiction which she locates in an area like the one which she knows well, Pittwater, NSW. Readers of her earlier stories, The Briny Café and Gone Fishing, will have already met some of the characters in this new book and been introduced to the supportive, friendly people who choose to live a simple life on the bay or the island offshore.

In this latest story, Sam Scully, a simple man at one with the sea, plays a prominent role. He plies his barge, the Mary Kay, to all areas around the bay and nearby island delivering goods. His first mate Jimmy is a simple, colourful, lovable character who voices some of the basic tenets for a good life. Each night the barge is tethered near the Briny Café, the centre of all that goes on in this closeknit community.

Into this area comes the eclectic group of five retired couples, with no real links to the community and a seemingly lack of desire or energy to build any. Word is that they have pooled their resources to spend their retirement lives in a renovated house on the nearby island. Some in the community thought the new arrivals had courage and were prepared to rally the community to help them settle in. However, when one of this new group is discovered floating face down near their jetty, speculation runs rife. The rest of the story follows the locals as they try to solve the riddle of these misfits. During this process the relationships between the individuals on the mainland are explored, especially that of Sam and his partner, Kate, who are expecting a child.

The story has a range of characters with different backgrounds, most of whom are in their later years. There is the doggedness of a former journalist, the food creations of the café chef, the natural beauty and love of the Australian bush and the ferocity of coastal storms to add to the complexity of this story.  What is also highlighted is the quagmire of behavioural niceties expected, leaving the reader to wonder about their importance when compared to kindness and compassion which were the driving force for good manners for those with simple lives. Good manners seemed a thousand miles from etiquette. But always there is the concern for others and looking out for each other which seems to flourish so well in small communities.

Susan Duncan enjoyed a 25-year career spanning radio, newspaper and magazine journalism, including editing two of Australia’s top selling women’s magazines, The Australian Women’s Weekly and New Idea. The underlying theme of her writing remains constant – good communities create a sense of belonging and lead to contentment.

This is an enjoyable story, which gives many of its characters fulsome roles and addresses concerns for those in their later years. It is a story full of humanity and the simple pleasures of life.

Sleepless in Stringybark Bay


by Susan Duncan

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76106-796-9

$32.99; 398pp


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