Book reviews

The Strays by Emily Bitto

I loved The Strays by Australian writer Emily Bitto. The story was set amongst a group of bohemian modern artists living on a grand property in Melbourne during the 1930s. I am so interested in this topic and liked the setting and character’s stories so much that this book could have been written for me especially.

The story was narrated by Lily. As the only child of straight-laced, hard-working parents Lily’s suburban home life was what most of us would call ‘normal’.

When Lily met Eva Trentham at school they became friends. Lily had never been exposed to anything like Eva’s bohemian family and their world and she became completely fascinated by the Trenthams. Eva’s father Evan was a supremely confident and successful modern artist whose work pushed the boundaries of acceptability in Melbourne society. Helena, Eva’s mother, had inherited the grand property where they threw wild parties for other modern artists in their circle. Evan and Helena’s daughters Eva, Bea and Heloise were loved but neglected.

Lily’s parents didn’t much like Evan or Helena but they were slightly star-struck by the Trenthams and encouraged Lily and Eva’s friendship, and after Lily’s father suffered a serious accident were relieved when the Trentham’s offered to have Lily live with them. What Lily’s parents didn’t realise was that a houseful of other artists had also made their home on the Trentham property. Evan and Helena hoped to create their own form of Utopia as the artists worked in a shared space with Evan and made the Trentham home their own.

As young teenagers, Lily and Eva’s friendship was extraordinarily intense. They smoked marijuana (which in the spirit of the times when the book was set was called ‘reefer’) and drank the dregs of the alcohol discarded by the adults at the Trentham’s parties, attended glamourous art exhibitions and opening nights, and listened to the adults spout about their ideals. They saw Evan’s artwork seized by the police because it was considered to be debauched, and posed semi-naked for an attractive young male artist living amongst them.

Eventually, the fun stopped when two of the Trentham’s daughters became sexually involved with one of the artists.

I think everyone has been fascinated by someone else’s family at some point in their life, and know that I was. My conservative family background meant that when I was exposed as a teenager to a friend’s hard-living household I thought it all very exciting and desperately wanted to be part of it. I didn’t see then that what I thought was glamourous and wild was actually a fairly unhappy and sordid way to live. However, looking back at her time with the Trentham’s in later life, Lily’s experience was different to mine. Her exposure to the Trentham’s formed her in that she went on to become an art historian and used her personal exposure to the Trentham era to document their times.

I was interested in the connections between the Trentham daughter’s names and that of their parents. Bea, who name didn’t echo either of her parents, was the only child who escaped the tragic consequences of neglect and debauchery and as an adult, live a functional life.

After finishing this book I’m keen to read and learn more about Sunday and John Reed and the group of artists who lived at their home at Heide in Melbourne during the 1930s. The property is now the Heide Museum of Modern Art. I’m planning a visit as soon as Melbourne comes out of these seemingly never-ending lockdowns.

Emily Bitto won The Stella Prize in 2015 with The Strays. The Stella Prize is an annual award given to a female Australian author. The prize itself was begun in 2013 to address the under-representation of female winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Both prizes are named for Australia’s Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who wrote as Miles Franklin.

I thought The Strays was terrific.

Comments on: "The Strays by Emily Bitto" (11)

  1. Excellent review! I’ve actually read this novel, some time ago, probably as a result of something in the New York Times (perhaps it was a notable book, or on best 100 of the year list they do annually). Although I’ve forgotten most of the details, I do remember liking it a great deal and thinking Bitto did a nice job of showing how a working class kid from an austere background would be fascinated by a family of Bohemian artists.

    • Thank you! I enjoyed The Strays enormously, so it makes me happy to hear other readers liked it too.
      I suppose everyone else’s home seems more interesting than our own, but the contrast in between the narrator’s home life and the artist’s family showed them to be even more bohemian and exotic.

  2. This sounds really fascinating. I noticed that bit about the names too. You’re right that we have probably all had some fascination with someone else’s family, especially when we’re young. As a teenager, I thought my friends whose parents didn’t care where they were at night were so lucky.

    • Oh, me too! I thought I was terribly hard done by at not being able to do what some of my friends were allowed to do.
      I liked that the story showed cause and effect, which happens in real life, too. In the case had things been the other way around and the child of the artist had spent more time in her friend’s ‘normal’ household her later life may have been happier.

      • Yes, that would be an interesting comparison to make. I’m always fascinated by how much of personality and life experience is nature vs nurture.

        • Nature vs nurture is fascinating, isn’t it? I’ve read some sad stories about twins being separated at birth, but how their lives have turned out in these cases has been terribly interesting.

          • Oh, those are always so interesting! I even find it fascinating to see how my own kids are so similar in some ways and so different in others.

  3. I’m in, straight away with artists and the ’30’s!

  4. The title sounded familiar…. And I finally found it on my frighteningly long tbr list where it has languished for several years. You’ve encouraged me to bump it up the list, Rose!

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