“The night that followed was a slip down the rabbit hole.”
The Strays of the title in the debut novel from Australian novelist Emily Bitto are a group of people who gather around artist Evan Trentham, his independently wealthy wife, Helena, and their three daughters: Bea, Eva and Heloise. While most of ‘the strays’ are artists, Eva’s best friend, Lily joins the group, first at age 8 just for companionship, but then as a housemate when her family circumstances change.
This is Melbourne in the 1930s, but the novel opens in 1985 with Lily, an art lecturer, now in middle age, divorced, remarried and with a daughter. We know that something went horribly wrong at the Trentham home and that whatever happened spilt the ties between Lily, Eva and her family. So it’s with a sense of impending doom that we read on…
Lily is an only child from a home that seems boringly normal when compared to the Trenthams’ home — a huge splendid house surrounded by ramshackle, yet glorious gardens–which has been in Helena’s “old money” family for three generations.
That garden. I still wander in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of the mist, gigantic, as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place.
Lily’s home is quiet, predictable and stable. Meals are served at the same time every day, but life with the Trenthams is anything but predictable. At first Lily begins visiting Eva’s home after school, and these visits morph into weekend stays.
Besotted as I already was with Eva, that first visit to the Trentham home threw my sense of my own life off balance. I felt as though my home, a semi-detached bungalow we had recently moved into, had shrunk since morning, and our yard was a shoebox sown with only those plants that refused the smallest taint of wildness, even in their names: sweet William, primrose, baby’s breath.
Eventually, Lily moves in with the Trenthams becoming almost a fourth daughter (there’s a great comment made by Helena that Lily is no trouble as she barely notices she’s there), but by the time Lily moves in, it’s not just the Trenthams living there–the house has become an artist colony for the ‘Melbourne Modern Art Group.’ While the young artists pose for one another, have sexual relationships, smoke pot and continue to work, the flimsy parental structure barely held in place begins to fall away. There are rumbling noises from the world outside of the colony: the vice squad, obscenity charges, and reviews in the newspapers. The four young girls, approaching adolescence are left, disastrously, to their own devices.
Through Lily’s first person narrative, Emily Bitto captures the intense closeness of the friendship between Eva and Lily, and how, as sexuality enters the picture, secrets divide the girls. There’s occasionally an edge of hysteria to the tale which echoes the excitement felt by the four girls as they spy on the adults, swig leftover alcohol and steal joints left carelessly by the ‘adults’ they live with.
It’s the beauty of Bitto’s remarkably visual writing that remains with this reader, and many scenes recall the sharpness of Lily’s memory of those years.
The room itself was cluttered with paint tins, brushes and books, and reeked of tobacco and turpentine. There was a green chaise longue behind the door, its horsehair stuffing erupting through a hole. A huge half-finished painting stood against the back wall.
While this is essentially a coming-of-age story, the novel asks some deeper questions: are artists allowed some sort of ‘pass’ for their behaviour? Can they be judged by the same standards as non-artists? Where do family and responsibility fit into an artist’s life? And I was particularly intrigued by Helena, a substantial artist in her own right.
I could look at a corner of a cloudy sky in one of her canvases, and it was if I was peering through a chink in a wall from a distance, with little revealed, but with three steps could put my eye up to the chink and see the whole panorama revealed. Helena’s images allowed you to see what was outside their compact frames, almost by the very fact of their occlusion. They invited the viewer to peer through the window of their canvas and watch the scene expand.
There’s a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of the novel, but upon reflection, for this reader, that feeling seems to be fermenting in Lily’s role as the scapegoat for the lack of parental responsibility. Almost 50 years have passed since Lily left the Trentham circle, and yet she steps back into the milieu and her role as family scapegoat is shoved upon her once more. But is it a role she can ever abandon? She hints at writing a memoir which would perhaps shed a different light on that period, and yet… she can’t commit to the project–perhaps silently confirming that everyone’s settled opinion is best left unchallenged. To expose the truth would betray those whose opinions and acceptance matter.
(The novel is “inspired by stories of the Melbourne art world in the 1930s and 1940s.”)