Aus. Women Writers Challenge, Reviews

Review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

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The Strays (2016) by Emily Bitto

*this review contains hints of the ending*
Emily Bitto’s The Strays is told from the perspective of Lily as she looks back on the childhood and teen years she spent involved in the lives of her best friend Eva Trentham and the rest of the Trentham family. Eva’s father, Evan Trentham, is a passionate, slightly mad artist living with his wife Helena and their three daughters, Beatrice, Eva and Heloise in Melbourne in the 1930s. As Eva’s best friend, Lily is deeply involved in their lives for many years, and the novel follows her recollections and dissections of the time she spent with the Trentham family and their artist friends, what it meant to her then and now, the strange evolution of intense female friendship, and the events that befell the Trentham family in Lily’s late-teen years.
The plot is balanced between Lily’s keen observations of the Trentham family and their artist friends, particularly in relation to her own conservative family, and the effect that their lifestyle ultimately had on her and on their three daughters. There are whole sections of the novel that describe the everyday life and events of the family, the circles they moved in, their neglect and disengagement from their daughters, and Lily and Eva’s friendship as it grew and then shrank. Balancing that are a few chapters of Lily’s current life in the 1980s and her re-connection with members of the Trentham family, including Eva, and how they have changed (or not) since their intense young friendship.
This novel was very easy to become absorbed in – I read it in only a few days – but that is because there is a deep and disturbing sense of foreboding from the very first chapter. As Lily is gathering her recollections during her current life it is clear that there was some event, some disaster that tore apart the strange and wonderful world she was a part of. Similar to Paddy O-Reilly’s The Wonders, the interesting and fantastic world that the Trentham’s had created and inhabited felt too wonderful, too abnormal to be lived without consequence, and that sense of foreboding overshadows the entire work in a way that is not quite suspense, but a deep, dark anticipation of disaster.
The Strays is several kinds of novel packed into one. On the surface it is a memoir and a meditation on female friendship, but alongside that is the emergence of modern Australian art in the stifling, conservative world of 1930s Australia as brought forth by Evan and Helena Trentham and their circle. Even deeper than that it is a treatise on the consequences of decadence, neglect and poor parenting. Bitto’s writing is a little timid and uncertain in places, which swings between adding and detracting from Lily’s character, who herself varies between tentative and certain, aware and self-absorbed. Many of the dialogue sequences were a little unbelievable and could have used some more work; the urge to tell rather than show seems to have prevailed at many points. Overall, however, the story came across effectively and the general tone of the work is consistent.
I recommend this work to anyone who enjoys becoming absorbed in a novel, who relishes the ominous sense of a dark ending, and who is interested in those who live outside the norms of their time and place.

View all my reviews

2 thoughts on “Review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

    1. Thank you! I’ve recently turned this poem into a comic, submitted to Voiceworks’s next issue. If I’m not successful with that I’ll just post it up here 🙂

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