The Strays by Emily Bitto
Emily Bitto’s debut novel The Strays is about families, art, isolation, class, childhood, friendship, and the power of the past. It’s both moving and sophisticated; both well-researched and original; both intellectually engaging and emotionally gripping.
Lily is the only child of ordinary, decent, slightly anxious parents who have struggled to get the family intact through the Depression and are only just beginning to recover from this ordeal when Lily, at the age of eight, meets a new friend at school. Eva is the daughter of controversial modernist painter Evan Trentham and of his wife Helena, whose ‘old money’ is financing her husband’s career; Eva is the middle child of three daughters who are being carelessly brought up in this unusual family.
Eva and Lily bond at once, in one of those immediate and magical connections that Goethe called ‘elective affinities’. The thoughtful and watchful Lily, as the narrator, is established as the observer of this bohemian household, which is at once idealistic and disorderly. More and more young artists join the circle or actually move in; less and less attention is paid to the girls as they grow up; and things slide imperceptibly into the jaws of a crisis. Bitto expertly builds up the reader’s expectation of a terrible unravelling, with a slow build to a dramatic climax.
The three criteria for judging a Stella Prize winner are that the book is ‘excellent, original and engaging’, and The Strays effortlessly meets all three. Its originality is of a rather retro kind: in an era when it has become fashionable to the point of being almost the norm for novelists to adapt or fictionalise the life stories of real people, The Strays has the ring of originality in its richly and fully imagined vision of a particular time and place in Australian social and cultural history. The characters have been invented from scratch rather than taken from real life, as has the plot; the novel draws on Australian cultural history but borrows only in the most general way from accounts of the various bohemian artists’ circles of Melbourne and Sydney in the mid-20th century, with, hovering behind them, the ghosts of the Bloomsbury Group.
By contrasting Lily’s conventional, suburban parents and their stiff social manners with the loud, messy spontaneity of the artistic household, Bitto avoids the clichés that often dominate descriptions of creative households full of unconventional, self-absorbed people. Like many a quiet only child, Lily is enchanted by this big, loud, chaotic family, and by the free-spirited intensity and energy of the extended household.
In its subject matter, its characters, and its sombre mood, this novel is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, or A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and in this company it can hold its head high. The Strays is like a gemstone: polished and multifaceted, reflecting illuminations back to the reader and holding rich colour in its depths.
– Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of the 2015 Stella Prize judging panel
Emily Bitto has a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including The Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Heat and the Australian Literary Review. The manuscript of her debut novel was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. The Strays was shortlisted for the 2015 Indie Prize, was shortlisted for the Dobbie Award and is the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize. She lives in Melbourne where she runs a new Carlton winebar, Heartattack & Vine.