Susan Duncan– Sleepless in Stringybark Bay

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2023

We move into this book in the same way we might make our way into a new community; there is a gradual uncovering of place, of personalities and the way things are done. While this is a crime fiction story with a non-police investigator in the persona of an ex-journalist, it is the picture of personal lives and the connecting embrace of community that first commands our attention.

Susan Duncan talks to Barbie about Sleepless in Stringybark Bay

Cook’s Basin is home to a mixed bag of people including former journalist/ now half owner of the Briny Café, Kate; her partner in the café, ever nurturing Ettie; Kate’s caring partner, Sam the bargeman (and father of her growing child); Jimmy, Sam’s brightly clad young offsider and his mother Amelia (recently in prison for fraud with the welfare payments, all for the best reasons); Marcus the passionate hatted chef and devoted late life partner of Ettie.

Other eccentrics and the local policeman Richard Baines come in and out of the main story. Then there is elderly Lizzie who has lived alone for decades in a bush cottage, her company for the most part occasional visits from ‘can turn his hand to almost anything’ elderly neighbour Cliffy.

What strikes me forcefully is the echoing over and over of the notion of abandonment in these characters and their lives. Kate has had a fractious relationship with a largely absent mother, Lizzie lives alone, Ettie comes from a broken earlier marriage, Jimmy has had to manage with community help when his beloved and devoted mum goes to prison for a short spell.

Stories of loss and absence are also part of the retirees’ group. Sam with his determination to be there for Kate and their child provides a foil for this theme – the obverse of abandonment.

Isolation is also a key element. With it comes the necessity to depend on one’s fellows when disaster strikes or when one cannot manage a particular task alone. This sits uncomfortably with Kate.

The bay is a somewhat isolated community in which most commerce and daily life happens by boat. The book is full of boating terms and practices, and we board these boats often enough that we soon become familiar with this whole sub-community of seagoers and their ethos.

Into this tight knit community come interlopers and with them a mystery or two. A group of cashed up retirees has clubbed together to build GeriEcstasy on a section of the bay accessible only by water. It’s an all bells and whistles building and an odd assortment of five couples who have, we hear, known one another for decades.

The glorious image unravels almost immediately with the death, soon revealed as suspicious, of one of GeriEcstasy’s residents, Cameron, partner of Brian.

And so it is that amidst her ever-increasing girth and ever-increasing anxiety about motherhood that Kate determines to investigate the group and the death. In the background Sam has also picked up intelligence and is in communication with Baines the policeman about the latest developments and findings, all pointing to something nefarious.

Meanwhile the personal ups and downs of Kate and Sam’s relationship and the daily life of the bay and its inhabitants bubble along. Planting Lizzie in GeriEcsatsy, when she decides she is now too old to continue living in isolation in the bush, eventually brings things to a head and with building tension and drama the stories of the locals and the recent arrivals come together and we have resolution.

The constancy of the bay community’s support for all and sundry including our heroes and heroines is striking. So too is the sheer beauty of nature – a sensory delight in the smells and sounds of the bush and the sea. We feel the contrast when Kate makes a research trip to the city and her old haunts. Nature and the sea give and take, often with violent amorality it seems, always with magnificence.

The sensuality and comfort of food is also a recurrent motif. Food is shared in acts of care and friendship. Its preparation is described in detail, its effects on the eater transformative.

Susan Duncan is a storyteller par excellence. She captures us with her gradual filling in of details on the canvas, both in setting and book people.

By the end we have the full McCubbin with a splash of Monet. The mystery and its investigation are a mental exercise for the reader and the rest is an experience of life, an invitation to live in this small community and to understand its worth.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Susan for chatting with me about community, the lure of the water and this book.