Emily Bitto, The strays (Review)
Let me start by saying I really enjoyed reading Emily Bitto’s The strays. It was scheduled for my reading group the day after my return from Tasmania, and I suddenly found myself in the last day of my Tasmanian holiday without having started the book. Wah! I read it in two days, helped by several hours in a couple of airports. I haven’t done that for a long time, and what a joy it was to have a real length of time to commit to a book. It helped, of course, that having both a strong plot and an intriguing set of characters, The strays is a compelling to read – one that reminded me, albeit loosely, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
This is a debut novel, which also won this year’s Stella Prize. Set primarily in the 1930s, with the last of four parts set in the 1960s, The strays is both historical fiction and a coming-of-age novel. It is also a classic outsider story. Lily, who tells the story first person, is befriended when she is 8 years old by schoolmate Eva, the middle daughter of the Trenthams who, early in the novel invite a number of artist “strays” to form a utopian-bohemian artistic community. The Trenthams are inspired by the Reeds and their Heide group, but The strays is not a Heide story*. This may be the strength of the novel, but also perhaps its weakness – a strength because it frees Bitto to tell her own story, but a weakness because it removes potential ideas on which to hang her story.
Before I get to that, though, a little more about the story. The first three parts follow the Trenthams for 8 years, from when Lily is 8 to 16. During this time Lily becomes increasingly involved with the Trenthams, in preference to her boring, conservative, middle-class parents, eventually living with them full-time. Some members in my reading group found her parents’ relinquishing of their daughter unbelievable, but this was during the Depression, and Lily’s parents did have some problems of their own to manage. I could suspend my disbelief. From Lily’s point of view, she was in thrall to the excitement of the Bohemian life, telling her parents, “I love you both but I want to be different”.
Her parents, however, should have been concerned, because the Trenthams are rather casual, neglectful parents and the four girls more or less run their own lives, sometimes being fed properly, sometimes not, sometimes, in the case of one in particular, going to school, and sometimes not. The story is as much about them, as about the artists, though we do hear about the artists too. There’s exploration of experimental art and its acceptance or otherwise by society, obscenity charges, mentee supplanting mentor, and so on. There are parties, and other occasions, where artists and children come together. Bitto, through Lily, paints all this beautifully. Indeed, I loved her ability to evoke scenes, people and places with effective, yet tight imagery.
Bitto’s use of Lily as her narrator works nicely. Through most of the novel, we see the story through her child’s point-of-view, but occasionally, with a “later I realised” type of comment, we are reminded that this is an adult telling the story of her childhood:
When was it that I became a voyeur in their midst? I was the perfect witness, an unsuspected anthropologist disguised within the body of a young girl, surrounded by other young girls who were part of the family. Yet I was cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hoarding and collecting information.
This narrative style keeps the story grounded. We see the dysfunctional dynamics and its effects before Lily, wooed by the excitement, does – though she does have moments of clarity. When the youngest daughter goes missing on one occasion, she writes:
I drew in my breath. These adults were no use in a crisis.
The subtext is that her parents would be.
But, here’s the thing. The book tackles a lot of ideas. There’s the exploration of society’s reaction to experimental art; the idea of coming to terms with the past (for Lily); the utopian artist community and whether it can really work; indulgent or neglectful parenting, creating a dysfunctional family life that comes back to bite; the exploration of girlhood friendships and the whole coming-of-age thread; not to mention those big issues like loyalty and betrayal, envy, sexuality and sensuality. It’s not that these were uninteresting, or even that they weren’t well developed. It’s more that I struggled to find Bitto’s main focus, and I guess I like some sort of central idea on which to hang my understanding of a book.
My reading technique is that when I finish a book I go back and reread the beginning. This usually puts the whole into context, pinpointing what the author was about. However, this technique didn’t work wonderfully with The strays. Bitto’s Prologue starts by discussing the mystery of instant attraction between people, and then moves on to the idea of past life connections and that people’s souls can be twinned from one life to the next. These ideas are used to explain Lily’s relationship with Eva, but I’m not sure that this is fundamental to the book’s meaning. The prologue then discusses the past. Three decades after the main events, Lily receives a letter:
and I become aware of an old compulsive pain I have pressed like a bruise again and again throughout the years.
I feel a tenderness in my chest, and the past rushes in as a deluge I can no longer hold back …
I let my mind turn back once more, to recreate again that distant, still wracked past.
Is it this, the idea of coming to terms with or resolving the past, that binds the book together? It is partly. By the end of the novel, Lily has come uneasily to terms with what happened those three decades ago, and its impact on her life. I say uneasily because – and here we come to the epigraph, by William Pater, which expresses a different idea again to those in the prologue: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”. Lily’s uneasiness is that she has chosen “conventionality”, but recognises that part of her “is still drawn to the romance of the fully lived life”. Then we have the book’s concluding paragraphs, which are more concerned with mothering and family in Lily’s recognition that it was the Trentham children who paid the debt for their parents’ experiments. See my problem regarding central idea? Or, is it just that I’m being boringly 20th century?!
Whatever it is, they are just niggles. As a read, The strays is up there as one of my most enjoyable for the year – for its lucid writing, for the story and a setting that had such appeal, and, yes, even for that whole raft of ideas that she throws so determinedly at us. Even for that.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book too.
* Interestingly, a couple of “real” people are mentioned, one being politician and later judge, Herbert Evatt – as a supporter of modern, experimental art.