Susan Duncan’s first novel, The Briny Cafe, introduces us to Cook’s Basin, a fictional community something like northern Sydney’s Pittwater. The community of Cook’s Basin is full of characters you would find familiar in any town – just with something indefinable added by the inescapable fact that many of the community live on islands and rely on water transport for their daily commute. Then there are the locals, residents who work in and around the water – just as a farmer is defined by the farm, so too these workers are defined by the water.
Take Sam, for instance, who makes a living as a bargeman – the equivalent of the local ute, Sam’s barge is a reliable workhorse transporting building materials, supplies, and furniture, or anything else that won’t fit in a “tinnie” (or dinghy, for us landlubbers). Or Ettie, a fifty-something widow, making a tenuous living cleaning houses of the commuters, and dreaming of better things, while also exercising her considerable talents cooking for her friends and neighbours. But the Basin attracts other types too, such as Kate, who seems to be unsuited to the community ways of the Basin, preferring to remain independent even if it means she makes mistakes.
When Bertie, proprietor of the Briny Cafe, local coffee shop and everyone’s hangout, falls ill, he turns to Ettie to help him restore the Briny to something like glory and prosperity. And surprisingly Ettie seems to have taken a shine to Kate, and together with Sam’s help they manage to fulfil Ettie’s culinary dreams, Kate’s entrepreurial ones, and Sam’s sense of community ideals while making a go of the Briny.
A beautifully told, whimsical story, true to the water-living types, and filled with delicious sounding food that – luckily – is disclosed in recipes at the end.
Available now: Random House RRP$32.95