The Strays by Emily Bitto
On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife try to avoid the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia and seek to turn their house into an artistic colony, inviting lots of ‘strays’ to join them. Lily becomes one of these strays and through her eyes we see the the Trenthams begin to struggle with the same dark ideas that Evan flaunts in his paintings.
First Impressions: I don’t always enjoy novels told from the perspective of children, nor do I always believe in the adult still affected by long ago childhood friendships but Bitto keeps a sensible and balanced voice for her narrator and I enjoyed the story from the start.
Highlights: The story from the 1930s is framed by the present, with events transpiring so that Lily begins to reflect on her friendship with Eva. The tone and hints indicate something went awry (and why wouldn’t it!) and this creates the tension in the story. Bitto has created a story that is compulsive reading – not only is the life of the Trenthams and their fellow artists interesting but I kept wanting to find out what happened. It was sort of predictable but not all of it! As a narrator Lily is quite mature and sensible for her age and this is no doubt a legacy of being an only child and having conservative home life. Later in the novel her nature is referred to by other characters who tell her she is a goody two shoes. Her foray into the art world as an adult also adds depth to her character. Essentially, Bitto has created fully believable and well rounded characters, with Lily being the shining example. I felt like punching Evan when he had dinner with Lily’s family. Finally, after reading the novel I now appreciate the cover art more.
If I was an editor: At first I thought it was a bit of an awkward plot development that Lily’s conservative parents would let her spend so much time with the Trenthams. Sure, her mother admired the sort of people they represented and coming out of the depression she wanted more for her daughter, but still. However, as the novel progressed and Lily’s relationship with her parents developed, the time spend ‘running wild’ at the Trentham’s was believable.
Overall: A lovely and accessible literary novel that perfectly captures a moment in time. Should at least make a few shortlists this year.
The Strays: 5 stars