Susan Duncan is no stranger to sea-side living: her best-selling memoirs A Life on Pittwater and Salvation Creek both touch on her experiences as a new resident in the coastal town of Pittwater. In The Briny Cafe, Duncan’s first novel, Pittwater is given a fictionalised treatment. Given the moniker of Cook’s Basin, it’s joyfully populated with a variety of quirky characters who, despite their undeniable differences and eccentricities, share a love of the local area and its accompanying way of life.
Having come to Cook’s Basin only some thirty years ago, sometime artist and amateur baker Ettie Brookbank knows what it’s like to be an outsider: there are local customs, challenging personalities and difficult waterways to navigate. So when city-slicker journalist Kate Jackson purchases a ramshackle abode on the water’s edge, Ettie immediately throws her a social lifeline, ensuring that Kate learns how to tread water in a community that’s more than a little wary of outsiders.
Though the other residents of Cook’s Basin are taking bets on how long this land-lubbing newcomer will last before throwing in the towel and returning home, Ettie soon realises that there’s much more to Kate than meets the eye. So when Ettie is offered the life-changing opportunity to take over the creaky but much-loved Briny Cafe, her first port of call is the unassuming outsider.
Despite the tongue-clucking and raised eyebrows of the change-averse locals, the two women set about transforming an institution famed for its undrinkable coffee and questionable cuisine into a thriving hub that shows off the best that Cook’s Basin has to offer. It’s a daunting undertaking, but Ettie’s personal mantra goes, the trick is to “recognise opportunities when they come along, and to grab them unafraid”.
These opportunities extend beyond the immediate lure of cupcakes and cappuccinos, however, and though The Briny Cafe in no small part centres around the revival of the eponymous cafe and its impact on the community, there are a number of romantic subplots and minor mysteries thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, these feel like hasty additions added in to add meat to what is a fairly thin and familiar plot, and this combined with the drawling narrative voices gives it a rambling, yarn-like feel that makes it seem a good deal longer than its 350-odd pages.
Moreover, though Duncan invests plenty of page space into bringing Cook’s Basin to life, it never truly feels real. It’s hard to get a sense of the size of the community, which at times seems to comprise a handful of people and at others seems to number in the thousands. This sense of vagueness also applies to the point-of-view characters of Ettie, Kate and long-time local Sam; it’s difficult to determine where the reader’s sympathies should lie.
The Briny Cafe is ode to picturesque surrounds and the life-affirming pleasures of a back-to-basics, out-of-the-way existence. It’s a pleasant read overall, but lacks the focus and the originality required to make it stand out in the already well-represented sea-change genre.