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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of THE STRAYS by Emily Bitto (New Release)

3.5 Stars  
For this debut novel the author won the 2015 Stella Award, a major literary prize given to female Australian writers.  The book is now being released in North America. 

The narrator is Lily who looks back at her childhood 50 years earlier.  In the 1930s in Melbourne, Lily becomes friends with Eva, the daughter of Evan Trentham, an avant-garde artist.  Evan and his wife Helena start an artists’ commune, and Lily finds herself increasingly drawn to the glamourous bohemian lifestyle of the Trenthams where she, Eva, and Eva’s two sisters (Bea and Heloise) are unsupervised.  From the viewpoint of an adult, Lily examines the consequences of growing up in that environment and without adult guidance. 

Lily’s fascination with the Trenthams and their colony of modernist painters is conveyed very clearly.  She speaks of herself as living “on the periphery of these exotic scenes” and trying to “inconspicuously harvest the information I desired.”  She compares herself to a dog:  “sometimes I felt myself to be a dog under the table, scrounging after dropped morsels.  I was sly and skulking like a dog has to be.”  A fear of being expelled from the household influences her to make a decision which has a major impact on events.  Her fascination continues into adulthood; Lily admits that her “desire to lead an unconventional life” and her “reverence towards the daring, the creative, the extraordinary” influenced her decisions as an adult.

What is also emphasized is the way in which the adults seem oblivious to the need for them to take responsibility for the girls.  The adults are very self-absorbed; they focus on their own activities and leave the girls to their own devices.  As a result, the children are exposed to nudity, drugs and alcohol at a very young age.  Evan and Helena largely ignore their girls.  It is not unusual for Helena to tell her them to “’Buzz off . . .  I want your father to myself.’”  One of the artists even tells Helena, “’You ignore your children.  It’s your husband who defines you.’”  Bea, the eldest daughter, is expected to look after her siblings.  Evan is little better than his wife in his attitude to his children; he tends to speak of his daughters as his “progeny.”  Some of the other artists do occasionally take a hand in overseeing the girls’ activities but they cannot compensate for neglectful parenting.

The parents are not likeable characters.  It never seems to occur to them that their irresponsible parenting will have consequences.  Helena is the character I found most objectionable.  She caters only to her husband and is most interested in gardening, drinking and socializing.  She worries about how her husband will react to a negative review of his art but seems unconcerned when her youngest daughter refuses to go to school or goes missing.   When two daughters run away, the Trenthams wait nine months before going to bring them home; after nine months, they decide the girls “had strayed long enough.”

It is the characterization of Lily and Eva which most interested me.  The two are foil characters.  Eva is everything that Lily wants to be.  Eva is self-assured and possesses a rebellious spirit whereas Lily lacks confidence.  Lily hates being called a “goody two shoes” and her decision not to tell Evan and Helena something crucial stems at least partially from not wanting to do what is expected.  She also wants to remain loyal to her bold-spirited friend.

The title of the book is perfect.  There are any number of people who are strays.  Helena speaks of their artist colony as a “community of strays” and loving to “take in a few more strays.”  One of the artists calls himself a stray dog, and Helena says, “’We love stray dogs, don’t we Evan?  They’re the most interesting kind.’”  She calls Lily “our newest little stray.”  In many ways, all the children are like strays who receive minimal attention.  And, of course, many people stray.  The artists stray from conventional art and a conventional lifestyle; daughters stray from their homes; eventually, people stray from friendships. 

I do have a few issues with the book.  One is that the setting is insufficiently developed.  Most of the events take place in the 1930s, but there is little historical detail.  I would have liked more local colour.  Another weakness is that there are times when Lily goes on and on about her life with the Trenthams; after a while, it becomes tedious to read once again about her infatuation with them and their lifestyle.  Though I understand the need to make clear Lily’s motivations during a crisis, I find some needless repetition. 

One event also bothers me.  Lily’s parents virtually abandon her when her father has an accident at work.  Would parents leave their impressionable daughter with people they know little about?  The one evening they spend together shows that the Trenthams’ values do not match those of Lily’s parents.  During that evening, we learn that Lily’s parents say grace before meals, drink very moderately, and don’t smoke at the dinner table; in other words, they are the exact opposite of the Trenthams.  Lily takes pains to say that her mother was “impressed in her bourgeois way with fame and pedigree” and thought that Lily had made “a good connection” by being friends with Eva, but I am still not convinced that ordinary, conventional parents, as Lily’s parents are supposed to be, would just drop off their only child for nine months with virtual strangers whose activities cause public scandal. 

I would certainly recommend the book.  The book has been compared to Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  Though I don’t think it is the equal of McEwan’s masterpiece, it is a good read. 

Note:  I receive an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.