The Strays by Emily Bitto

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The Strays by Emily Bitto

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A wonderfully satisfying tale of friendship, loss, family and the bohemian Australian art world as it might have been in the early-mid 20th century. Beautiful prose and finely judged tension keeps the pages turning in this deservedly prize-winning debut.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Legend Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785079511

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Lily comes from an ordinary suburban family, but on her first day at a new school she meets Eva: the super-confident middle daughter of artist Evan Trentham. The girls fast become firm friends, to the exclusion of all those around them and it isn't long before Lily is spending more time at the Trentham's than she does at home. Why wouldn't she? Their life is everything her family's isn't.

They have the big house, with the sprawling grounds. The children, Eva her older sister Beatrice and the youngest girl Heloise, are allowed to roam freely while their parents focus almost exclusively on their art. Lily rapidly becomes just one more female child about the place. This bohemian existence expands as other like-minded artists join the household. For a while it feels like an idyll, but there are tensions beneath the surface, which are bound to surface.

Lily is telling the story from a distance of 30 years, looking back to the interwar years and the most intense friendship of her life that was somehow broken. Irreparably it seemed until out of the blue she receives a note from Eva asking her to an exhibition opening: a retrospective of her father's work. As Lily tries to figure out whether or not to attend she considers the past, as she remembers it.

It is a work of memory, and she admits that memory can be illusory.

Bitt's debut novel has garnered no end of prizes and rightly so. It is a deeply satisfying read. The kind of book that doesn't toy with your emotions, doesn't move you to tears, but does elicit a deep-felt sigh of, yes, satisfaction at its end. At its heart is the intensity of young female bonding, and the strains such relationships bear as girl-children move toward womanhood. It's set mainly in the halcyon years between the wars when to live differently was still likely to stir scandal, and for those who did so maybe that was partly the point.

This is especially so for the women, striving not to be defined by pre-ordained roles as wives and mothers, wanting to be something more or other and yet never quite succeeding. Each of the central characters in her own way gives way eventually to a kind of staid normality, much of their lives being defined by their responses to the men in them.

The artists are the core of the story are given credit for the physical endurance involved in producing the work, and the financial hardships that some elect in order to be able to pursue the craft. Their conversations move beyond the mundane and for Lily the word that she uses again and again is interesting. Theirs is a world of wider horizons, with dreams of Europe and beyond. It's a world that Lily wants to be part of and yet, looking back, realises that almost from the start she was observing it rather than living it.

But the coin has another side. Evan's behaviour is both eccentric and egocentric in equal measure. Is he slightly bizarre, or does he merely shock to ensure he remains at the centre of attention? Does he act as patron to the young artists he draws into his fold, or are they to be his accolytes? And for their part, what is their motivation in joining the circle? Are they committed to a cause (the modernisation of Australian art) or merely accepting the convenience of free board and lodging and space to work? Selfishness is a thread that cuts through all of the characters and so it is surprising that Bitt has portrayed them all with a measure of affection, each of them redeemed in some small measure.

Tension is maintained throughout with a subtle background of sinister happenings. All we know is that Eva has left it too long to get back in touch and that young Heloise was lost. The how and why of each of these isn't revealed until quite late in the story although the foreshadowing gets stronger as the story unfolds.

All of it is written in Bitto's elegant prose, which perfectly captures the voice of the reminiscence. This is the kind of book that even as you're putting it down at its end, you know that some-time in the future you will want to come back to it.

For a very different – but equally enjoyable - take on the interwar years in Australia, we can recommend The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman, or head back a few years to just before the first war and try The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. You might also enjoy The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon.

Booklists.jpg The Strays by Emily Bitto is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2016.

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