Book Shelf: The Briny Cafe by Susan Duncan
When young but burnt out financial journalist Kate Jackson buys a rundown shack in the idyllic Cook's Basin, the long-term "offshorers" speculate as to whether she'll survive. As it turns out, you shouldn't underestimate the capabilities of a girl reporter.
The first to Kate's doorstep is Ettie Brookbank, a long-term offshorer, divorcee and artist who is beginning to wonder if cheese, salami and wine are all there are to life. Both at a crossroads, the women find common ground as they unite to bring the ailing Briny Café back to life as its owner, the cantankerous but loving Bertie, faces the reality of his declining health.
Themes of community spirit and the sanctity of life, together with delicious descriptions of Ettie's signature dishes, blossoming romance, the beauty of the women's burgeoning business, the possibility of fresh new starts and the quest to rid Cook's Basin of a crook, make the book a pleasingly gratifying read, while Duncan's simple style makes the page turning all the more breezy.
Recipes from the cafe (raspberry muffins, lemon delicious pudding, cure-all chicken soup...) round out the pages, while single-page editions of the Cook's Basin News and the illustrations and large headings that greet you at the beginning of each chapter brighten the book-scape.
Ettie and Kate are relatable characters, and so too their romantic interests, the rough but all-round good bloke Sam Scully and retired chef Marcus. Resident philosopher Freddie's musings on the sanctity of life ("compassion takes you a lot further") and the young, hyperactive Jimmy's wide-eyed appreciation for a rescued turtle leave us believing the simple life is ideal, though Kate's desperate attempts to ameliorate her intolerable mother and the threatening infiltration of drugs, crime and thugs give us cause to contemplate how we might preserve a space, a time, a place in the context of an unsettled world.
Former journalist and Australian Women's Weekly editor Susan Duncan's first novel, following her best-selling memoirs Salvation Creek and The House, as well as A Life at Pittwater, her paean to the picturesque surrounds to Sydney's north she calls home, is a welcome escape into an otherworld not that far away.
The Briny Cafe is published by Random House Australia ($32.95; out now).
Coming soon... an interview with Susan on journalism, editing The Weekly and writing novels.
Girl With a Satchel