The Strays – Emily Bitto

My library doesn’t have much of an Australian literature collection. (It also doesn’t have many books by Canadian authors but that’s another story for another time.)

So I was rather surprised to find this book in the catalogue. I had first come across it via Litsy, where one of the Littens I follow had raved about it.

And that cover! It was simple yet extremely attractive and suitable to this story set in the Melbourne art world.

That garden. I still wander in dreams between the pale gray pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of mist, gigantic as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place.

It’s the kind of book that makes you (1) want to just read and read and read because it is that good; (2) feel like you shouldn’t read it so fast because it is a book to be savoured and sipped.

Also, this is a debut novel. Which means that while I may indeed look forward to what else Bitto may be writing, there is also nothing else of hers that I can read right now. However, it is such a good novel that it won the Stellar Prize in 2015, an award for women’s writing.

I have told you all this but I haven’t actually said much about the story itself.

It is set in Melbourne, and its narrator is Lily, an outsider of sorts. She is the very best friend of Eva, a girl she meets in school. Eva is the middle daughter of an avant-garde painter, who lives in a rambling old house with his family and an assortment of other painters, a community of artists his wife has constructed.

Helena, Eva’s mother, is more interested in her relationship with these artists than in her children, who are left to their own devices, entertaining themselves and often having to scrounge for their own food from the adults’ dinner party leftovers. Bea, the eldest, takes charge, Eva is like Switzerland, and her younger sister Heloise is strange. Then Lily, whose father is in an accident, comes to stay for a while.

“It was true; now, more than ever, the girls were left to their own devices, allowed to create their own small democracy in which law would always be decided by age or the ability to make the loudest protest, in which Beatrice was inevitably the ruler, eloise was teh rowdy proletariat, uprising and changing the course of a decision with her sheer vociferousness, and Eva was the silent majority, usually happy to keep the peace. If the addition of Ugo, of even one extra member of the household, had its effects, throwing still more off-balance the already rudderless boat that was the Trenthams’ family life, imagine the extent of their freedom and neglect when another three individuals were added to the household. Two of these were Maria and Jerome, the new members of the Melbourne Modern Art Group. The other was myself.”

It is a strange story. A stranger within their midst, yet wholly more comfortable there than she ever is with her own family. A life so extraordinary compared to the plain normal-ness of her suburban family life. With a mother who smell of “cigarettes and a  heavy floral perfume, not the kitchen and laundry scents exuded by my mother”. And by a father “put together from mismatched stuff”. “like a rubber band stretched tight and close to snapping”. And the freedom to wander and do anything and everything. Freedom or neglect, one might wonder.

I’m intrigued by how different this UK version of the cover is from the US one.

I loved the devoted friendship between Eva and Lily

“Yet it was the ordinariness itself that made my days with Eva beautiful. The way we grew together; the way our hearts were known to each other, and our lives, I believed, joined forever in a lazy flow of days.”

The beginning of the book hints at a fracture in the relationship – they have not spoken in years, these two who were once best of friends, and it is much later in the story that all is revealed (and I shall not reveal it here). But for me, it is not about that aspect of the plot that this book is about (also it happens off-stage, in a sense, so it loses its dramatic edge), it is about those halcyon days of childhood and freedom and exploration, in a world so unlike Lily’s own, and probably so unlike the reader’s own. It’s a bit fairytale like, but in a dark way. It made me think a little of Merricat and Constance in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

A gorgeously written, lyrical book about family, friendship, and the creative life. Also, a very good read.

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4 thoughts on “The Strays – Emily Bitto

  1. I’m so weak for any comparison to Shirley Jackson! This sounds pretty great, and I’ll have to see if my library’s got it — I too have been remiss in reading a sufficiency of Australian authors. :p

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  2. I’ve been diligently listing all the Stella nominees since its inception, but I haven’t read (m)any of them. It’s tricky to find Aussie authors up here too, sometimes, and I’ve not been attentive enough with the project to break down those barriers. Your post gives me new incentive!

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