The Strays: Emily Bitto

★★★★½

The Strays has enjoyed great success in its native Australia and it’s easy to see why. It brims with the ribald, feverish glamour of bohemian life, seen through the eyes of a narrator who grows to adulthood on the margins of an exotic world so very different from her own humdrum existence. Romantic and poignant, it manages to feel much larger than its slim size would suggest. There are hints of Brideshead Revisited, of The Secret History and The Lessons, of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and, like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, it focuses on an intensely-rendered, many-layered picture of adolescent female friendship. It’s a stunning debut.

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.

On her first day at a new school in 1930, eight-year-old Lily makes friends with Eva, whose ebullience and confidence outstrip anything that shy Lily can muster. Her fascination grows as she meets Eva’s family: her two sisters, practical, maternal Bea and little Heloise; her mother, the cool, sophisticated and rather daunting Helena; and her unkempt, flame-haired father, the painter Evan Trentham. Used to the quiet life of an only child in a modest home, Lily is captivated by the Trenthams’ sprawling old house, where friends are always coming and going, where the children run wild and the adults have intense intellectual conversations over wine and cigarettes, talking deep into the night with a passion that fires Lily’s heart. Shrugging off her own unexciting home life, she craves to become part of the Trenthams’ vibrant lifestyle and, through her growing friendship with Eva, her wish seems to come true, until the rambling house and its large, half-wild garden are as familiar to her as her own.

Lily is not the only addition to the Trenthams’ chaotic ménage. As the years pass, she watches the formation of an artists’ commune in the house as the mercurial Evan gathers like-minded painters together. Calling themselves the Melbourne Modern Art Group, the artists plan for their first exhibition. The Trentham daughters, and Lily, watch from the sidelines as this tempestuous, romantic group of people argue, smoke, flirt and bring new urgency and determination into the old house. For one achingly beautiful, golden-tinted summer, all is magical. But then the fault-lines begin to develop, tiny hairline cracks as first, but deepening and widening as the artists deal with critical successes and failures, and as the girls themselves grow older. And indeed, although Evan and Helena, and their artist friends, are too absorbed in their own world to notice their maturing daughters, it’s through the girls that the cracks finally widen into gulfs – through neglected, wilful Heloise and languid, alluring Eva.

The story is beautiful – one of those aching, nostalgic paeans to a lost childhood innocence that can never be recovered – but what really makes this book is the quality of Bitto’s writing. She’s superb at conjuring up the feel of a moment in time, or the quality of a season: as the year shifts from summer into autumn, she writes that ‘the days were beginning to mellow, dusk starting to drift into the garden earlier, filling the air like smoke and making the green of the grass and the glossy, thick hydrangea leaves more intense‘. Her observations are exquisite and the language has a voluptuous shimmer to it, like honey rolling off a spoon. Reading this book felt like an aesthetic experience.

And Bitto is so very good at conjuring up the experience of the outsider, who itches to belong, to lose her otherness in full communion with this thrilling world, but will always be held separate by some invisible wall. I always take notice of how authors write only children and Bitto is one of the best I’ve seen – conjuring up Lily’s sense of self-reliance and self-dependence, but also the loneliness of her soul, her desperate longing to belong without question or effort to some peer group; the constant fear, having made a friend, that it could all be snatched away, leaving her outside, cold and alone again. Such feelings are, to varying degrees, common to every only child and I wonder whether Bitto herself is an only child, to have noted these feelings with such precision and empathy. This story – like Brideshead, like The Secret History – would not have worked in the same way if the narrator had not been an only child, questing for a place to belong in this daunting world.

This is to be highly recommended for those searching for a book in which to lose themselves. It’s only 250 pages long but in that relatively short space it unfurls the mysteries of memory and the heart in a compelling, haunting and deeply poignant way.

Buy the book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.

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