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Book Reflections – The Strays by Emily Bitto

I read The Strays by Emily Bitto for book group. I had not heard of the book or author and I love that aspect of book group.

The Strays is set in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1930s in recollection by the protagonist, Lily, and in the present tense in 1985. Lily changed schools in 1930 when she was 8 years old. On her first day at the new school in Box Hill she met Eva. They quickly became very close friends but with a subtle power imbalance. Eva was in control of their relationship and Lily strove to please Eva.

Eva was the middle daughter of the avant garde, modernist painter Evan Trentham (fictitious). He lived with his wife, Helena and their three daughters in the house Helena had inherited. Helena had a privileged upbringing and was able to support her family through the Great Depression on her inheritance. Lily’s family by contrast struggled during the depression.

Evan and Helena nurtured the impression that Evan was an eccentric artist. They held parties until late at night at their house with other artists. He drank a lot and would take a bath in the garden in full view of the guests then defecate in the garden bed. Helena was narcissistic and neglected her children. The girls ran wild and had to prepare whatever meals they could from the scraps of food available. The youngest daughter, Heloise, had adult teeth removed because the decay was so bad from not brushing her teeth. Helena blamed her oldest daughter, Beatrice for not making Heloise brush her teeth. Eva stole alcohol and joints from the party guests and she and Lily got drunk and high at 14 years old.

Evan and Helena invited three young modernist painters to live with them and work with Evan. They had a fun time creating art and living a bohemian lifestyle. The lack of parental supervision and the presence of two young men in the house with three teenage girls was disastrous. Lily witnessed a lot of this because she was living with the Trentham’s at that time.

Approximately one quarter of the book is set in 1985 and features Lily’s reflections, emotions and interactions with the Trenthams 50 years after the drama. It’s a good book. The story is compelling. The characters are believable. I enjoyed reading it and I definitely recommend you read it too.

Our 12 year old daughter longs to be with her friends and finds that time spent with us stretches interminably. It’s bittersweet for us and Bitto captures it here

… Eva was my penny… She was warmed, as if by my own hand. I had been asking for a sister, but she was better. I wanted to be with her always and would have discarded my own parents, heartlessly, as only the securely cared-for can.

I like the imagery of this scene in Melbourne in the 1930s

It was windy, and men held their hats by the brim as if greeting everyone they passed. Women clasped their flapping coats around them, pulling children behind them like fallen kites.

This extract from a good review in the Guardian newspaper captures the book

Through her tale of a small artistic community more than 80 years ago, Bitto looks closely at the demise of family and the impact of loss. This story of bohemian living is about more than champagne and cigars; the strong bonds, bleak outcomes and moral struggles of its central female characters give The Strays its substance.

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2019 by in fiction and tagged , , , , , , , .
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