25 February 2015

Stella Prize Longlist Book of the Day, Book 2: Emily Bitto’s The Strays

Each weekday between now and the announcement of the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist on March 12, we’ll be turning the Stella spotlight on a different longlisted author and their book. Today is day one, and our featured book is…

The Strays by Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)


What the Stella Prize judges said:

Lily is an only child, and when she befriends the exotic Eva – daughter of artists and ‘old money’ – at school, it’s the beginning of the kind of love affair that solitary children often have with large exuberant families. But this is bohemian Melbourne in the 1930s, and in many ways it’s not a good place for any child to be. As the girls grow up their world gets darker and more complex, eventually imploding into scandal.

While it’s partly inspired by the real-life 1930s artists’ colony at Heide in Melbourne, this novel’s characters and plot are wholly fictional and the result is a satisfyingly cohesive vision and story. With its reflective tone, rhythmic style, and vivid scenes, Bitto’s novel illuminates the history of a particular time, place and way of living, but it also draws out the more abstract themes, common to all times and places, of friendship, memory, ambition, and family life.

The blurb:

On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work at their family home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

As the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect the same themes as their art: Faustian bargains and spectacular falls from grace. Yet it’s not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent.

About Emily Bitto:

Bitto, Emily_author photo

Emily Bitto has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, where she is also a sessional teacher and supervisor in the creative writing program. The manuscript of her debut novel, The Strays, was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

What the critics said:

‘[T]reating this novel as an historical fiction risks missing some of its breadth of insight. The Strays is an eloquent portrayal of the damage caused by self-absorption as well as a moving study of isolation… Whatever may have inspired The Strays, the book is astute in the way it tells its story; it doesn’t need to be supported by anything outside itself.’ – Michael McGirr, Sydney Morning Herald

‘Bitto has created an elegantly formed, resonant novel, melding vivid images, an ear for dialogue, and a well-measured narrative pace with the current of humour that always runs through human tragedy. With delicacy and restraint, The Strays explores rich terrain – the violence and redemption of art, the ever-presence of personal history, and the interrogation of childhood selves by adult selves in search of understanding and absolution.’ – Ruby Todd, TEXT Journal

‘Poetic, richly visual and faultlessly judged in terms of pace, character and atmosphere, this is writing that has the rich patina of an enduring classic.’ – Caroline Baum, Booktopia

Further reading:

And finally…

Click below to see Emily read from The Strays during the Stella longlist readings event at the Digital Writers’ Festival: