The Strays by Emily Bitto, Twelve, January 2017
Recommended for lovers of literary novels.
As a young girl, Lily, the only child of a quiet, upright couple in conservative 1930s Melbourne, befriends Eva Trentham, whose background as the middle daughter of a creative, sprawling family of artists could not be more different.
Lily quickly grows to resent what now seems like her dull and restrictive home and escapes as often as possible to explore the apparent wonderland of her friend’s house, garden and family. The Trenthams open their home to a group of young artists, creating an artistic community with what seems like the perfect blend of creativity, wildness and glamor. But, under the surface run threads of neglect and perversion that Lily, as a child, is hardly aware of, but that, when pulled, bring the whole community tumbling down.
From the start of the novel we know something has gone wrong in the community, and signs of its future fall of are woven in throughout, creating a strong sense of foreboding and tension. It’s clear that something is going to crack, although just what the disaster will be is not obvious.
The story is strong on the friendship between young girls, in particular Lily and Eva’s friendship and its unraveling is interesting, as is the parallel story of the secondary friendship that turns out to have more staying power.
The novel is set in two times as Lily looks back from the 1980s at her childhood in the 1930s. The 1930s sections are by far the strongest part of the novel, particularly the evocation of the magic of the Trentham house. That is where Bitto’s literary style is at its strongest. In the more humdrum life of the 1980s, her style tends to overwhelm the story in introspection.