Sleepless in Stringybark Bay : Novel Review

Review by Stacey O’Carroll

Author: Susan Duncan

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

RRP: $32.99

Release Date: 29 August 2023

“Sam shook his head. As far as he could judge, there were three people fit enough to survive a couple of years of boats, storms and offshore living. The others were casualties waiting to happen.” Susan Duncan

When the only way to access your home is by water or dense bushland, there are bound to be mishaps. Journalist and best-selling author of the memoir Salvation Creek, Susan Duncan,revisits her characters and the offshore community of Cook’s Basin from her novel The Briny Cafe in her latest cosy novel Sleepless in Stringybark Bay

Set in the fictional offshore community of Cook’s Basin (based on similar communities in Sydney’s Pittwater and Mitchell Island, NSW), Sleepless in Stringybark Bay sees five retired couples arrive to live in a communal house they call GeriEcstasy. A few days after the strange group moves in, one of the members is found dead by barge captain Sam, floating in the water near the jetty. His pregnant, ex-journalist partner Kate smells something fishy with the death and sets out to find out who the mysterious group at GeriEcstasy are and who killed Cameron. 

“Walking in the shallows of the bay, Ettie Brookbank wriggled her toes in the cool sand, sidestepped a starfish and raised her eyes to delight in the sight of frothy pink clouds skittering along the horizon.”

Duncan’s novels and memoirs have been on my to-be-read list for a while, so I was excited to read her latest work of fiction. Although Sleepless in Stringybark Bay follows on from The Briny Cafe, the novel can be read as a stand-alone story. While the backstory of the previous novel may give further characterisation to secondary characters, there did not seem to be holes that needed filling. What I did find after finishing the novel is I now had the desire to go back and read her first novel. 

Filled with a cast of vibrant and quirky characters, Sleepless in Stringyback Bay is also about belonging and communities. Thanks to Duncan’s evocative and serene descriptions, it is easy to imagine yourself sitting eating lunch, drinking a coffee or eating a slice of cake in the waterside cafe. I found the peaceful, wave-lapping pace of the novel heightened the contrast between the slow scenes and the mystery and action scenes. 

“If necessary, he’d rally the community to provide support. Communities looked after each other. And Cook’s Basin did it better than most.”

Duncan, who lives part of each year on Sydney’s Pittwater, describes the fictional Cook’s Basin so vividly that I had to remind myself that these settings were not Cottage Point and surrounds. As someone local who has visited Cottage Point and boated around Pittwater’s various off-shore communities, I found Sleepless in Stringybark Bay easy to visualise. I could hear the currajongs, cockatoos and the swoosh of white wake as the boats drove through the water. Imagining this story taking place in an area I am familiar with was possibly my favourite part of Duncan’s novel. The reader can see how much she loves one of the areas that inspired Cook’s Basin.

“Overnight, and without warning, the lazy feel of an early summer gave way to the lingering petulance of spring. A storm, filthy and black, roared in from the nor’east, catching the residents of Cook’s Basin by surprise.”

In the acknowledgements of her novel, Duncan notes the real-life Mitchell Island inspiration for the concept of the GeriEcstacys. Because the premise was so intriguing, I did wonder what inspired Duncan’s story.  The idea of communal living as a retiree is unusual, but given the current economy, it is possibly not far off some people’s reality! 

There is not much to fault in Duncan’s novel. However, as someone not into boats, I did have to look up a lot of the terminology or ask my shipwright brother-in-law what certain boat parts were. However, the descriptions of the storm were so realistic that they reminded me, to the letter, of the storm that wrecked carnage on the Northern Beaches around six years ago. 

Duncan’s Sleepless in Stringybark Bay will make you want to purchase a property on Sydney’s Pittwater or at least book a holiday there. Sleepless in Stringybark Bay is a perfect holiday read. Just maybe not in a remote cottage!