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Emily Bitto, The strays (Review)

November 2, 2015

Emily BItto, The strays, book coverLet 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 compelling to read. It 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.

AND

I feel a tenderness in my chest, and the past rushes in as a deluge I can no longer hold back …

AND

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.

awwchallenge2015Emily Bitto
The strays
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2014
290pp.
ISBN: 9781922213211

20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2015 2:54 am

    I’ve had this one on my radar for a while. It’s not available here yet…

  2. November 2, 2015 3:26 am

    A beautiful, generous review, Sue, that brings back the many pleasures the book has to offer as well as having a very good stab at articulating whatever it is that’s unsatisfactory about it. I like your process of re-reading the beginning of a book as a way of finding your bearings. I do that sometimes, but not at all systematically.

    • November 2, 2015 8:04 am

      Thanks Jonathan. I did enjoy reading it … Her writing and characterisation, as you said in your review, are good. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

  3. Carol Mannchen permalink
    November 2, 2015 5:12 am

    This sounds like one I would like to read, but Amazon does not have it and neither does my library. Maybe soon. Not like I don’t have anything else.

    • November 2, 2015 8:12 am

      Haha Carol. Keep an eye out for it, as I think you’d enjoy it. She has a great way of making you feel there, for a start. You can buy a e-book from booktopia.com.au …

  4. November 2, 2015 7:13 am

    It occurred to me while reading your review, Sue, how much The Strays has in common with the Elena Ferrante series, particularly the first in the series (the only one I’ve read but I’ve read quite a lot about the others). This too is about the friendship between two girls and, you could say, ‘the burning of the flame’. I read this book a few months ago and liked it a great deal but was thrown a bit by the depiction of the sumptious exhibition opening in the middle of the Depression. I was assured in a FB discussion that there were people like that with plenty of money who soared through those days, but I was pulled up short at the time, and it was only subsequently in the novel that Bitto made the Depression bite. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment but I admit I had to be mollified. That said, I did think it was deserving of the Stella.

    • November 2, 2015 8:17 am

      Ah, Sara, I remember that discussion on Facebook now! I completely forgot it as I as writing my review. I have to admit that I haven’t read the Ferrante books, though I have had one in my TBR pile for some time. Yes, I did enjoy that analysis of friendship, and in a way, I suppose the fact that it starts with that discussion of attraction and ends with the daughter and her girlfriend, that is the main thrust, but it competes with other ideas such as the whole discussion about Helena on the page before the end which focused more on the mothering angle. But I agree, it’s a fine read and Bitto will be worth watching. Her language is so controlled and yet highly evocative.

  5. November 2, 2015 10:15 am

    Just a quick comment about relinquishing children: I once knew two boys who had been relinquished into the care of an aunt during the Depression. She brought them up as her own, along with her own brood, and they were still living with her as adults when I knew them.

    • November 2, 2015 2:35 pm

      Thanks Lisa, that’s a good example to have. Must say, I found it understandable. War is another time when people relinquished children. It may not always be the best thing, but I find it understandable – that people decided to do it and that others decided not to do it. The world is not black and white!

  6. November 4, 2015 4:00 am

    Sounds like a really impressive debut! Also, being able to read it in two days, such a treat to have the time for that. Do you think that has much of an effect on how we experience a book?

    • November 4, 2015 8:21 am

      Good question. I think it can, Stefanie. What about you? I find that if I read an enjoyable book like that, it leaves with a warm glow that lasts for a long time. Also, practically, it’s easier to read because I don’t forget things like who is who, or some plot action! That may affect my critical assessment though I’m not so conscious of that impact.

      • November 5, 2015 1:01 am

        oh yes. If it is an enjoyable book I will enjoy it even more if I get to spend lots of uninterrupted time with it. It does leave a warm glow as you describe it. It is easier to read and a more immersive experience too that seems to almost stretch time and make me feel as though I have been “away” for much longer than I actually have.

        • November 5, 2015 7:36 pm

          That’s it … particularly the feeling of being away longer than one actually has.

  7. November 4, 2015 8:28 am

    For me, the novel’s central theme is that magical sense of promise that some children experience, greatly enhanced for Lily because she ‘escapes’ her conventional and watchful parents and runs wild with Eva and her sisters. The bohemian artists’ circle partakes of this magical childhood world because we see it through Lily’s eyes. And to quite a large extent, the adults behave like irresponsible children, which is thematically consistent. But of course the sense of promise and adventure can’t possibly last…

    • November 4, 2015 4:53 pm

      That’s a lovely way to express it Dorothy. I think you and Sara are right, that childhood and female friendships are the overriding themes … I loved Lily’s outsider view. That adult-child perspective can be very engaging.

  8. 11elsey permalink
    May 29, 2016 3:12 pm

    The Strays is our choice for discussion next meeting. I found it really annoying the first time I read it because the character of Lily seemed contrived as did the child’s voice. I kept wondering how the story could have been told in another way. So in the end, dissatisfaction. But having read it a second time this weekend and knowing what is in the future of each character, the cleverness of it became apparent. The signposting is so clear and the “voyeur” really works. And thanks for your thoughts to add to our discussion..

    • May 29, 2016 4:01 pm

      Thanks 11 Elsey, lovely to see your comment. I know there were some mixed feelings about this book. But, as you and I know very well, second – and multiple! – readings are often enlightening. I’m going to go back and read my review now in light of your comments.

Trackbacks

  1. ‘The Strays’ by Emily Bitto | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip
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