Review: The Strays

The Strays by Emily Bitto
Published by Affirm Press November 2015
Pages: 290
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work at their family home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

As the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect the same themes as their art: Faustian bargains and spectacular falls from grace. Yet it’s not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent.

I didn’t really know too much about this book going into it. My lecturer for Book Publishing and Marketing brought it into class last year for a class exercise, and I was intrigued by the discussion around it, so I went out a bought a copy… it then sat on my shelf for about a year. It was surprisingly good! I was expecting literary fiction – as that’s what a lot of people have been categorising it as – but I don’t know if I would call it that. The prose is sumptuous though, at times it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.

Set during the 1930s and ’40s in Melbourne, The Strays takes inspiration from the Heide Circle, a group of modernist painters led by John and Sunday Reed, who dominated the Australian art scene from the 1930s-50s. The Strays is focuses on three young sisters – Beatrice, Eva and Heloise, and the price they paid for their parents’ bohemian lifestyle.

There is no intimacy as great as that between young girls. Even between lovers, who cross boundaries we are accustomed to thinking of as at the furthest territories of closeness, there is a constant awareness of separateness, the wonder at the fact that the loved one is distinct, whole, with a past and a mind housed behind the eyes we gaze into that exist, inviolate, without us. It is the lack of such wonder that reveals the depth of intimacy in that first chaste trial marriage between girls.

Narrating from 1985, Lily recalls her intense friendship with Eva, whose parents have created their own community by taking in wayward artists who have fallen on hard times. As Lily’s parents encounter financial strife due to the Depression, Lily becomes another stray taken in by Helena and Evan Trentham. Lily comes to think of herself as an honorary Trentham, but when a scandal breaks out at the commune, she is banished as well – much to her surprise and disappointment.

Ultimately, this book is about female relationships. Childhood relationships – the way in which they dominate your life; filled with confidences, unwavering support, and trust – and the relationship between mother and daughter – both good mother/daughter relationships, and absolutely terrible ones. It’s heartbreaking to watch Eva and Lily’s friendship crack under the strain of emotional neglect, but for Eva and Heloise, they lose most of their close relationships. Everything Lily ever wanted from the Trenthams, she seemed to get later on in life with her daughter and partner.

I would’ve liked to see greater attention paid to the world building (for lack of better term) – aside from mentions of the Depression and the strain it was putting on Lily’s family, this book really could’ve been set in the present day. The end of the book was set in the ’80s, and it was here that you really got a sense of time and place. There were little details that were thrown in here and there to remind you. I also found the ending to be a little anti-climactic, albeit fitting for a book that is focused on female relationships. However, there was something really compelling about this book – I started reading it on the train ride to work and finished it during my lunch break.

Overall, a memorable and engrossing read.

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