Book review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

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“More than thirty years later, the scars still sleep on my wrists.”

I seem to really love fiction relating to art and artists and The Strays, by Emily Bitto, was no exception. I loved the story, I loved the language, and I loved the way art was part of the story.

Synopsis:

On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are attempting to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work with them at their family home. As Lily’s friendship with Eva grows, she becomes infatuated with this makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

Looking back on those years later in life, Lily realises that this utopian circle involved the same themes as Evan Trentham’s art: Faustian bargains and terrible recompense; spectacular fortunes and falls from grace. Yet it was not Evan, nor the other artists he gathered around him, but his own daughters, who paid the debt that was owing.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent. [Source]

Lily, the first-person narrator, is the bored only child of ordinary parents. She’s drawn to Eva and Eva’s family from the start and seems to live very much in their shadow. She allows their lives to happen around her and to her, quietly observing and absorbing everything. But, as the family starts to fall apart, she becomes more entangled and, later in life, she is forced to bare the weight of her actions (or, inactions, as the case may be).

“ ‘An artist is someone who sees the structures of order and recognizes them as arbitrary.’ ”

It’s a fascinating story and it’s told beautifully. I loved reading about the art and about the artists’ perspective on art, the art community of the time, and the need or desire to expand beyond the more conservative art that was accepted and expected at the time.

The family dynamics were also interesting. It was clear, from the start, that the parents loved their children, but didn’t seem to know how to put aside their own lives and art for the sake of their children. This isn’t to say they were bad parents – they both clearly loved their children. But, each of the girls suffered from neglect in some regard or another.

“… and sometimes Eva and I sat up together and watched, quiet amongst the laughter of adults like stones in midstream.”

It was interesting to see it from Lily’s perspective because she’s a passive observer while the family builds up and eventually collapses. But, later in the book, she’s the center of the story. It ties in nicely with her own perspective of being an outsider wanting in and, eventually, finding more clarity through revisiting her own life and her own broken relationships.

“I will wake tomorrow, I thought, and this night will be inside me.”

This is one of favourite reads this year (possibly of all time) and I’m very tempted to buy a copy to keep.

 

 

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