The Strays is Emily Bitto’s much lauded debut about an artist’s colony in 1930s Melbourne. She’s acknowledged that the story was influenced by the Heide circle around John and Sunday Reed, but is not based on it.
The frame story starts with middle-aged Lily receiving an invitation to a retrospective art exhibition of painter Evan Trentham, one of the early Modernists. It triggers memories of her association with the Trentham family, initiated when she meets Eva Trentham on her first day at school.
Only child Lily is desperate to escape her own staid family and the bohemian Trentham household of Eva, Bea and Heloise and their deeply conventional parents Evan and Helena, is deeply enticing. When her father has an accident, she’s soon absorbed into the paradiscial Trentham property on the outskirts of Melbourne. Helena and Evan are keen to create an artists colony where they can perfect their avant-garde art and live scandalously without interference. The older artist Patrick and his partner Vera, are already members of the household, and three other artists, the young and attractive Polish man Ugo, Maria, a Spanish woman, and Jerome, an up-and-coming artist from a rich Toorak family, soon move in.
While the adults drink, smoke reefer and generally behave badly, the three Trentham girls and Lily are left to their own devices. This childhood neglect will prove the catalyst for the tragic ending.
Emily Bitto has constructed an artists colony peopled by characters so complex and intriguing that entering the Trentham house feels like disappearing down the rabbit hole. The descriptions of the house and gardens, and the adults parties, were beautifully evocative. I loved the descriptions of life in their household and the desires and needs that drive both the adults and the children. The intensity of young Eva and Lily’s friendship is also beautifully handled and engrossing.
One of my favourite images – ‘Ugo was tall and pale; not the bluish pale of Evan and Heloise, who looked as though they had grown up under a tarpaulin‘, and another ‘The sadness of my parent’s home was as heavy as boiled pudding.’
But at times the prose seems a tad laboured and imprecise, which detracted a little from Bitto’s generally lovely style, and there were a few metaphors that didn’t work for me. I also felt that the description was often delivered in large chunks and at times unnecessarily. For instance, we are given a very beautiful and detailed description of Ugu’s shabby city studio and yet we never visit it again. And I think she didn’t handle the historical detail very well. It didn’t really feel as if we were in the midst of the 1930s. Handling period detail is so tricky. It seems that many writers are too heavy-handed with it and insert details whose only purpose is historical, and others, like Bitto, who evoke too little of the time. Its something I’m constantly trying to get right in my own novel.
Bitto deals with the themes of female friendship and what it is to belong, or not, with great intelligence, and there’s excellent narrative tension created by wondering what irresponsible thing the grown-ups are going to do next, and where its all going to come unstuck. And when it does all go pear-shaped, its unexpected.
Structurally, the ending of the 1930s part of the story at the 75% mark didn’t work so well for me. I felt like the story lost momentum when it moved into the present (ie. 1985) and took up too much space. I also found the ending a bit too diffuse – there were several moments of emotional intensity but no one singular moment I could have labelled the climax. I’ve reread the ending a few times, but I’m still not sure.
But overall I really enjoyed this story. Emily Bitto’s ability to completely immerse the reader in characters and setting is very impressive and I’ll look forward to her next book.
And finally, the next little section contains a spoiler, so don’t read any further if that bothers you.
Heloise is the daughter whose life ends tragically and the narrative switches back near the end, to a visit Lily pays Heloise in a psychiatric hospital in London in the 1950s. Heloise is clearly suffering from psychosis, possibly schizophrenia, which might also align with her earlier behaviour when she was a child. But this detail inescapably pushes the reader to conclude, even if Bitto didn’t intend it, that childhood neglect causes psychosis. It isn’t true and it plays into an overused stereotype of mental illness that really annoyed me.
If she’d shown Heloise suffering from intractable depression, it would have played much better because neglect in childhood can cause depression in adulthood, although even that is not guaranteed. The narrator also wonders whether Evan Trentham’s eccentricity was actually a trace of madness, that was inherited by his daughter. That at least is more plausible, but again, trots out that extremely tired stereotype of the madness of the creative genius. I just felt the story would have worked better without showing Heloise suffering from psychosis. People can lead damaged and ruined lives as a result of their childhood, without resorting to psychiatric cliches to explain it.