REVIEW: The Strays by Emily Bitto

"Are you listening, girls... I want you to understand that art is never wrong or immoral." 

The Strays begins on Lily's first day at a new school where she befriends Eva Trentham, daughter of avant-guarde painter Evan Trentham and his wife Helena. Loosely based on the Heide Circle, a group of artists in 1930s Australia who lived on a old dairy farm, The Strays ventures into a bohemian artist colony through the eyes of Lily. As the only child of a conservative working class family, she longs to immerse herself in the bohemian world of the Trenthams. 

"Trying to describe my friendship with Eva is like showing the slides from a life-changing journey. The images can never break their borders and make their way into the body...they can never convey the feeling of profound change, brought about simply by altering one's place in the world."

Little by little, Lily becomes a fixture in the house and her and Eva become inseparable. Evan and Helena's parenting consists mostly of forced self reliance as the girls must fend for themselves amongst all the other "strays" in an environment filled with temperamental artists and adult gatherings. Spending their days on the outskirts of the adults' glamorous lives, the girls lounge around the garden with stolen alcohol and cigarettes while contemplating the life questions that plague adolescents. Unfortunately, this living arrangement isn't the utopia it seems and soon Lily begins to see that the idyllic life she so coveted my not be everything she dreamed.

Emily Bitto has won several Australian literary prizes for The Strays, and I can understand why. Her writing style is informative yet plain, which I say as a positive. She lets the characters shine by keeping the story less plot driven and more slow burning. She writes with a gentle, melancholy, and contemplative hand the tale of a liberal family's struggles in conservative 1930s Australian society. 

One big theme recurring throughout the novel is the definition of family. Is it biology or choice? Eva and Lily are not related, but they form a strong sisterly bond that Eva lacks with her two biological sisters. Evan and Helena Trentham make the choice to, for all intents and purposes, neglect their children and construct their own "family" from the many artists they invite to live in their home. In many ways we see how this can be a positive, the ability to create a family where one's own fails, but whether we want it to or not, one's blood relations can impact in ways we can never fully understand yet are incapable of stopping.

Another idea the author plays with is that of women in art as timelines for male artists. Women artists of that time are rarely allowed to stand on their own. They must be placed along the timeline of their husbands and lovers. Helena allowed herself to take a backseat to Evan's career and become a wife and mother, but quickly she begins to resent her decision. In an effort to right a wrong in her life, she begins to gather all of the "strays" into her fold to keep it from happening to them. In her mind, she can provide a living arrangement for female artists to flourish without succumbing to societal pressures. 

Bookended by an adult Lily trying to make sense of things and coming to terms with the guilt for the role she played, The Strays delves into the intense friendships of youth and the need to belong to someone somewhere. The characters felt a little one dimensional, but it seems to be on purpose. We're reading about these people through the eyes of a child who very well may not have understood the depths and intricacies of adult life. There is a definite sentiment that many family secrets are intertwined and buried, and it says a lot about an author who can refrain from digging into the indiscretions. Anything more than presented would have felt exploitative.

The Strays was an enjoyable journey into a period of Australian history with which I am unfamiliar. In fact, I would have enjoyed a slightly longer version with more to ground the story in the 30s and 40s. The elements of art decency during that time period were fascinating but all too fleeting, and I wouldn't have been opposed to a slightly longer work that dove a little deeper into the historical fiction realm, but what Bitto has provided is quite worth the read.

*I received this book as an advance reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.