Review: The Strays by Emily Bitto
Sophie Clews | On 27, Feb 2015
The Strays, theÂ debut novel from Melbourne writer Emily Bitto,Â manages to strike the reader with its intensity, atmospheric writing, and occasional shock value.
Set in the outer suburbs of Melbourne in 1930, The Strays follows the life of an artist commune. Drawing quite clearly on the real events surrounding the Heide Circle, Bitto develops her own interpretations of the artists, offering a poignant retelling of the events. Whilst the novel deviates from the actual events, clear links can be drawn between the charismatic leaders of the artists’ circles and the art itself.
From the first chapter, we are immersed in Lilyâ€™s world, a child looking in on the world of the artistic Trentham family. As a friend of Eva Trentham, Lily becomesÂ an almost-daughter, and soon becomes a staple in her new friend’sÂ household.
Lilyâ€™s observations, however, remain those of an outsiderâ€™s. Although her infatuation with the artists is clear, Lilyâ€™s recollections remain grounded, questioning the activities and reasoning of the artists who come to inhabit the Trenthamâ€™s house.
Eva and Lily are forced to navigate their way through adolescence, balancing the usual problems that face teenage girls with those of the artistsâ€™ commune in which they live.
Lily, whilst understandably juvenile at times and occasionally offering an overly romanticised view of the world, remains insightful in her retellings. Bitto successfully manages to navigate not only a complex social dynamic but also depicts the passing of time, the loss of youthful delusion. Bitto writes the girlsâ€™ return to earth as they reach adulthood, the realisation of actions and consequences hitting the reader at the same time it hits Lily and Eva.
Bittoâ€™s novel is a coming of age story that pulls us from the delusions we may have about the artistic psyche. Offering what is sometimes a grotesquely realistic portrayal of its characters, The Strays reminds us that, at the end of it all, we are all human and that the simplicity of youth cannot last forever.
Image Credit: Tim Grey