Following is the first of Angela Long’s book reviews from the 2015 Stella Prize longlist. Follow Angela on Twitter as she tweets her reading progress! The 2015 Stella Prize shortlist will be announced on Thursday 12th March. See the full longlist here.
- Title: The Strays
- Author: Emily Bitto
- Category: Adult Fiction
- Publisher: Affirm Press May 2014
Review by Angela Long for Welcome to my Library
Summary: 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.
Review: Emily Bitto’s debut novel The Strays is an exploration of relationships; perspective and memory; isolation and belonging; separateness and community. As we follow the child’s eye recollections of Lily and her time spent with the Trentham family during the 1930’s, Bitto deftly layers each by careful pacing and her own direct and personal style,
Lily, a timid 8-year-old, is introduced to the confident and worldly Eva when she begins her first day at a new school. She is instantly besotted. As their friendship grows she becomes entwined in Eva’s home life, her ‘leg sister’. Like Alice slipped ‘down the rabbit hole’ she explores a world she never knew existed and one so in contrast with her own suburban existence, that it enticingly blinds her to any inherent danger it may possess.
‘Around Evan and the other artists I was learning the habit of attention, of noticing the world in all its ravishing detail and complexity. The habit of being amazed’
She is the outsider, the observer of life within the confines of the art commune that Evan and Helena Trentham are creating, another stray to be taken in and allowed to care for itself.
As Lily’s bond with Eva grows, so too does her pain and the realisation that the life she yearns for is ‘Eva’s life always’. Of course Lily is naively unaware that her need to belong is as strong as Eva’s need to escape. Like splashes of paint on canvas, relationships are formed and reworked, the final product never quite being what was originally designed, and in a world where no one is held accountable, this leads to life-changing results. What blossoms as a bond between two young girls, crumbles as the vagaries of human relationships intervene.
The conclusion takes us forward in time to an adult Lily, still clinging to her childhood memories, still enamoured by a family she was never truly a part of, trying to interpret her connection, her role and her guilt, through mature eyes. There is a feeling that life has come full circle.
Laced with beautiful prose, the strength of The Strays lies in its characterisation, in particular that of the young Lily. There are no major events that shock you or a fast pace that drags you along panting to keep up. We slowly become imbued in their life, feel their pain; sense the changes that they are blind to and those lurking around the corner. The process is gentle, the pacing consistent and the reader’s patience is generally rewarded.
As I turned the final page I was left with questions of how we define our past.
As our perspective changes, does our memory hold true to events? Is childish naivety an unreliable source? Or is the guilt of a child a caustic cloak to wear? And the most lingering of all; was Lily an observer, survivor or victim?
Read all Welcome To My Library Book Reviews HERE
Author Bio: Emily Bitto has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, where she is also a sessional teacher and supervisor in the creative writing program. The manuscript of her debut novel, The Strays, was shortlisted
for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript
For more information: Affirm Press
This book has been read and reviewed by Angela Long for WTML for the 2015 Australian Women Writers challenge. To read more about the challenge see their website www.australianwomenwriters.com.