Emily Bitto: The Strays
*This book was sent to me for review in exchange for an honest review by Legend Press as part of their Legend 100 club.
On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live at their home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, bohemian lifestyle and longs to truly be a part of the family.
But as the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect their art. Yet it’s not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism. Almost 30 years later, Lily contemplates the ordinary path her own life took, how she has played it safe, but does freedom come at a cost?
In some ways, I feel like I am not educated enough to give a thorough review on this book. I have no interest in art and politics, and I have no knowledge of the era of the 1930s, especially that of Australian 1930s. However, from a reader’s perspective, I can tell you that this is a novel that, though heavily influenced by these themes, is not overruled by them and is still an enjoyable novel for those who have no prior knowledge or interest.
Though, as mentioned, heavily influenced by particular themes, this novel also focuses on the importance of family and friendship. Throughout the novel we are reminded of the family dynamics within the Trentham family home and their differences in comparison to Lily’s own family who are boring and normal compared to the Trentham’s who spend late nights out by the campfire smoking joints and having no cares in the world. But even from a young age, Lily can clearly see the toll that this dynamic is having on her friend Eva, and her sisters Heloise and Bea. These sisters almost seem to rule the roost, being left to their own devices and expected to look after themselves as their parents while away their time with the likes of ‘the strays’ – a series of friends they encourage to move in with them to create an altogether different type of family. The sisters receive little to no form of parental acknowledgement, discipline, or emotion except when it could greatly affect their own reputation. It is no wonder that certain events take place resulting in Lily questioning the truth behind her friendship with Eva and what position she truly holds within the Trentham household.
“the girls were left to their own devices, allowed to create their own small democracy in which law would always be decided by age or the ability to make the loudest protest, in which Beatrice was inevitably the ruler, Heloise was the rowdy proletariat, uprising and changing the course of a decision with her sheer vociferousness, and Eva was the silent majority, usually happy to keep the peace.”
I really enjoyed finding out about each character. Each and every one of them had their flaws which made them even more likable/unlikable and helped to add to the feeling of disruption within the family whilst highlighting the animosity in society surrounding those from an artistic background. It was interesting to read about the influence Evan and Helena Trentham had on their children in comparison to more modern day representations of family dynamics and how wrapped up in this world Lily became, her mind becoming clouded by the freedom to do what she pleased without an authoritative voice to keep her and the other girls under control. Lily’s modern day voice also drip feeds into the narrative occasionally to mention how she didn’t see something coming, or to comment on how she felt looking back on this moment, and it was interesting to read narratives from her present to understand how past events had affected her life moving forward.
Overall I did really enjoy this novel. The writing was easy to read with excellent descriptions that truly brought the characters to life. However, I felt that, was I more knowledgeable about the artistic culture within society during that time period, I probably would have enjoyed the book a lot more.