Review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

Margot McGovern reviews The Strays by Emily Bitto. 

Winner of the 2015 Stella PrizeThe Strays (Affirm Press, 2014) is an enchanting foray into a bohemian paradise where art reigns supreme, creation and destruction walk hand in hand and desire winds snake-like through the grass.

Set in 1930s Melbourne and inspired by the lives of the famous Angry Penguin artists who lived and worked at Heide under the patronage of John and Sunday Reed, The Strays is a imaginative reworking of that dark and ancient premise: et in arcadia ego.

Eight-year-old Lily feels she’s stumbled into a fairytale when she befriends Eva, daughter of modernist painter and founder of the controversial Melbourne Modern Art Group, Ethan Trentham, and his wealthy, bohemian wife, Helena. On their rambling property artists drift like gods through the gardens and retreat to their studios to work for days—weeks—on end in fits of divine madness while Lily and the Trentham sisters run free in an endless game of make-believe. There’s no rules. No bed times. No problem when Lily’s father is injured at work and she needs a place to stay while her mother nurses him. But as the girls grow into adolescence the cloistered, adult world they inhabit comes more sharply into focus and the fairytale Lily so eagerly clings to reveals itself as little more than an illusion.

The Strays coverThe Strays carries strong echoes of earlier stories of paradise gained and inevitably lost—Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty—and like these antecedents meditates on the moral price and wilful blindness that our deepest desires demand, and considers: what crimes are we willing to forgive an artist who produces great work and what terrible oblation must the artist themselves make?

Like her predecessors—Charles Ryder, Richard Papen, Nick Guest—Lily is an enchanted outsider drawn into a closed and much-longed for world. To her, the Trenthams and the extended family of artists they gather around themselves offer, or appear to offer, the sense of belonging she so desperately craves:

I am an only child; it is my lot to be envious, even grasping, to long for the bonds that tie sisters together, the fearless, unthinking acceptance that we are social creatures, pack animals, that there is never, truly, the threat of being alone. 

As such, the early parts of her story are gilded in heady nostalgia and romanticism. Her first description of the Trenthams’ garden is reminiscent of du Maurier’s descriptions of Manderley, albeit with a strong Australian favour:

I still wander in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of the mist, gigantic, as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place. …The hedges were twiggy, and the rose bushes stuck their arms in all directions. The rest of the garden was wild, with banks of hydrangeas and scarlet geraniums and a huge tussock of sacred bamboo into which the girls had carved a warren of narrow paths like a crazed hedge maze with no centre. There was an old train carriage in the back corner of the garden, its walls and floor plumbed and buckled by damp. … The sisters had their headquarters in a disused chook shed, and a secret den in the hollowed-out bowl of earth beneath the boughs of a casuarina. At the rear of the garden there was a high gate that Eva called the switchgate … ‘You can go out but then you can’t get back in. That’s how it works.’

Meanwhile the Trenthams’ negligence towards their children is ignored or else reframed as opportunities for adventure and independence—the girls finding themselves ‘left gloriously alone to ride the rooftops or circumnavigate the garden as we desired.’

Later, when Lily can no longer claim childish naivete, she continues to cling to her fantasy of her adopted family. This wilful blindness leads her to shirk her moral responsibilities and makes her difficult to sympathise with. It’s a problem common to narrators of this kind of story, and Bitto does her best to have Lily use the mistakes of the past to reconsider her understanding of family, in particular her relationship with her grown-up daughter. To me, this redemption felt a touch contrived. While family is very much at the heart of the book, mother-daughter relationships are in soft focus. Lily is drawn to Helena’s easy (if aloof) acceptance over her own mother’s (painful) lower-middle-class preoccupation with manners and keeping up appearances, but both figures remain periphery. To have Lily ultimately nominate Helena as a key influence, ‘the mother figure that I have fought against my whole life’, doesn’t quite gel. I wanted a little more foregrounding. Also, given the nostalgic tone that permeates the story, Lily’s ‘compulsion’ to make things right comes off as somewhat insincere. That said, this type of story has traditionally been overwhelmingly dominated by male characters and relationships and it’s refreshing to see Bitto bring women and their specific relationships to the fore.

Indeed, one of the key questions posed in The Strays has particular resonance for women: how do we negotiate our love and responsibility towards our family with the desire to pursue our own work and interests—what Lily describes as the ‘cultivation of separateness’? The Trenthams get it horribly wrong, but there is something admirable in their blatant rebuke of social norms. Understandable too, is Lily’s reluctance to admit her pivotal role in the drama that unfolds or that her life with the Trenthams is anything short of ideal. What is distasteful about her and the Trenthams is a pressed-down weakness we recognise in ourselves: an insatiable desire to best our fate. Lily and the Trenthams upset the natural order and for the reader there is both great despair and satisfaction in the inevitable chaos that ensues.

The Strays is an evocative, intoxicating cautionary tale of the often terrible price we pay for tempting fate and of the blindness brought about by misplaced desire and ambition. More than that, it’s about our primal need to make meaningful connections. To find our tribe. To belong.

If you enjoyed The Strays, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

Brideshead Revisited The Secret History The Line of Beauty
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh The Secret History by Donna Tartt The Line of Beauty by Alan Holinghurst
The Night Climbers the-lessons-naomi-alderman The House at Midnight
The Night Climbers by Ivo Sturton The Lessons by Naomi Alderman The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

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