The Strays by Emily Bitto: A Review

I believe in supporting emerging literary voices, so in 2016, I vowed to read more debut novels. I read many, and some were my favorite books of the year. Emily Bitto’s The Strays was one such book. I read the book in the Fall of 2016, but The Strays only became available to readers in the U.S. yesterday, January 3, 2017 (hence, I didn’t include it in my 2016 list of books).

the-straysIn 2015, debut novelist, Emily Bitto, received the Stella Award, a book award that recognizes Australian women writers of fiction and nonfiction and the second major literary award in Australia.

Her debut, The Strays, is story of friendship, an avant-garde artists’ colony, a band of bohemian artists, and secrets that bind or break relationships. The novel is framed as a memoir. In 1985, Lily reflects on one of her most influential childhood friendships and her experiences living with the eccentric Trentham family in the 1930s.

Lily and Eva meet  when they are eight years old, though they come from very different worlds. Lily, a child of middle-class suburban parents, lives a relatively “normal” and sedate life, a life filled with routine and order. Eva, the child of two wealthy, bohemian parents lives in a world of beauty, chaos, and passion. For Lily, her attraction to  Eva and the Trentham family is immediate and profound. It is this attraction that Lily describes in the opening of the book: 

“I once read that the heart’s magnetic field radiates up to five meters from the body, so that whenever we are within this range of another person our hearts are interacting. The body’s silent communications with other bodies are unmapped and mysterious, a linguistics of scent, color, flushes of heat, the dilating of a pupil. Who knows, what we call instant attraction may be as random as the momentary synchrony of two heart’s magnetic pulses.”

Written from Lily’s voyeuristic point of view, the novel uses vivid descriptions of “scent, color” and “flushes of heat” to show the dazzling Trentham world and the stories that they live through Lily’s all-seeing eyes.

“The air there smelled of dry bush, gum leaves and wet clay, like the heavy blocks we used in pottery class, our teacher slicing them to pieces with a string tied between two clothes pegs.”

Lily, who adores the decadent and exotic Trentham lifestyle, spends most of her childhood roaming their land with Eva and her two sisters. They spend their summer days traipsing through the garden and their summer nights staying up too late, sneaking champagne and “reefer,” completely unmonitored by Eva’s parents.  When Lily’s father is injured at work, her parents ask the Trenthams to take her in. The artists welcome Lily in as one of their “strays,” the term they give to the artists they support and who make up the Trentham’s  commune designed to challenge the conservatism of the 1930s Australia art scene.

For a year, Lily lives with and observes the Trentham household, all the while unseen like ” a dog under the table, scrounging after dropped morsels. I was sly and skulking like a dog has to be.” Lily begins recording these events and stories in a secret journal, the one she uses as an adult  to write her memoir. When a secret comes between Lily and Eva, Lily realizes all that she holds dear–life with the Trenthams and the person she loves–is as subjective as the abstract art she admires.

The Strays is about art, decadence, family, secrets, childhood, and the ethics of storytelling. But, what I loved most about the novel is that it focuses on the greatest love stories of our lives. Not romantic love, but the intimate love of childhood friends:

“There is no intimacy as great as that between young girls. Even between lovers, who cross boundaries we are accustomed to thinking of as 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.”

Promoted as a novel in the vain of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, The Strays is a beautiful story that is less plot-driven than it is character-driven (though there are many exciting events).  Much like Ian Mcewan’s work, Bitto’s novel made me pause to read her lovely sentences aloud, to hear and taste the words myself. Though a short, page-turning novel, The Strays feels somehow both languid and grand. Emily Bitto will be an author we are sure to hear from again soon.

Thank you to Edelweiss, the publisher, and the author for a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.

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