The Strays by Emily Bitto


The author of this winner of the Stella Prize for 2015 was inspired by stories of the Melbourne art world in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when traditionalists were denouncing modern art and Australian artists were seeking to make "Australian art," rather than seeking European acceptance. Other than a few historical figures, Robert Menzies, for one, the book creates fictional characters.

The narrator Lily is looking back as a mature woman on her connection with the (fictional) Trentham family, the "First Family" of modern art in the early 1930s Melbourne. Evan had become a well-known artist, his wife Helena brought old money to the mix and they took in stray artists to live on their estate, along with their three daughters. 

Lily came to know them through Eva, one of the daughters she met in school, and was besotted with all of them. The girls were left to their own devices; sometimes even unable to find any food in the larder. When the youngest locked herself outside the garden gate and wasn't discovered until well after dark, Lily could see these adults were useless a crisis. The freedom she and Eva had and the intensely interesting gathering of artists were magnetic; her own parents were distant and drab, and because of an accident to her father, were eventually willing for her to live with the Trenthams.

In the Prologue Lily recalls that after it all fell apart, Eva came to her for help, that she was the one Eva turned to, that she could help when her own family could not.

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.

This theme comes up in the descriptions of the closeness of the two girls as young teenagers and in Helena's search for a sister among the stray artists.

Although her [Helena's] own children would seem the best salve for her lack of blood ties, Helena craved siblings rather than dependent offspring, people with whom she could approach the wordless understanding, the secret codes, and violent closeness shared by sisters. I believe she envied her daughters their relationships with one another, just as I did. And so she brought three girls into the world and let them roam it without telling them to fill the pockets of their pinafores with bread and to leave a trail of crumbs that would lead them, in a crisis, home.

That brings me to another theme: the indictment of Evan and Helena for their terrible behavior toward their children, their unwillingness to be parents which ultimately had disastrous results. At times the author, in the voice of Lily, equates the artistic life as incompatible with decency and responsibility to others. This comes up in Lily's own adult life and in her daughter's choice of a partner. Lily thinks she eventually chose the "ordinary life." I like to think that being responsible to those who rely on you and preferring to be with those who agree with that does not make one "ordinary." 

This book is yet another candidate for my top ten list. The plot is flawless and the characters remain alive in my mind. I loved the backdrop of the art world of the 1930s and the revisiting of that world 30 years later.

Emily Bitto, The Strays, Affirm Press, 2014, 244 pages (I read the Kindle version). It's not available in libraries here, and though I found it by searching on my Kindle, a search on the Amazon website does not turn it up.

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