Tag Archives: artist colony

The Strays: Emily Bitto

“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.

The strays

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.”)

Review copy

For other reviews: Gummie and Lisa

 

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Filed under Bitto Emily, Fiction

The Hundred-year House by Rebecca Makkai

“This place doesn’t want me,” he said. “It’s rejecting me. Like a transplanted organ.”

Rebecca Makkai’s engaging novel The Hundred-Year House spans a century, focusing in on 4 specific time periods: 1999, 1955, 1929, and 1900 through the story of the various residents of a splendid ancient manor house, set in gorgeous grounds, located outside of Chicago. This was once the Laurelfield Arts Colony, but in the present, 1999, when the novel begins, the Arts Colony is a thing of the past, and all its secrets are hidden under lock and key in the attic. Matriarch Gracie, married to second husband Bruce, guards the past and the keys. Her only daughter Zee, a Marxist scholar, teaches at the local university, and Zee and her husband Doug live in the former coach house on the grounds of the family mansion. Doug, a “freelance PhD” is unemployed and is still working (for the last nine years) on a book about obscure poet Edwin Parfitt, who once stayed at the colony.  While Zee’s frustration grows at Doug’s inability to finish his book, he is actually secretly employed writing formulaic books in a popular teen series called Friends for Life. He’s ashamed of this job which he found through his friend, Leland, a “luckless poet.”

They give you the entire plot,” he said, “and you just stick to the style. Really there is no style. It’s refreshing.” Leland claimed they took a week each, and Doug was enchanted with the idea of shooting out a fully formed book like some kind of owl pellet.

While Doug stays in the coach house writing series teen novels, his book on Edwin Parfitt is frozen. He has piles of xeroxed articles, but he becomes obsessed with the old art colony attic files and convinces himself that there’s previously unknown information about Parfitt to be uncovered somewhere in the attic. Strangely, Gracie proves to be very difficult when it comes to allowing access to the files, and she’s an elusive person whose air of distracted eccentricity may be genuine or may be a way of effectively avoiding confrontation. Doug convinces himself that if he can just get his hands on the files, he’ll be able to finish the book, and his life will take a new direction. His quest leaves him with the “horrible feeling that he’d jumped down the wrong rabbit hole.”

Hundred year houseMeanwhile, Gracie’s second husband, Bruce sinks into an end-of-world millennium scenario, so hoarding and stockpiling, he prepares for Armageddon. To add to the complications, Bruce’s severely depressed and freshly fired son, Case, and his artist wife Miriam arrive from Texas to share the coach house with Doug and Zee. All the old status quo dissolves as new alliances form: Zee begins a campaign to get a colleague fired in order to get her husband a job, a trail of bad luck dogs Case, and Trash Artist Miriam forms a renegade bond with Doug. …

Other sections take us back into the history of the house and questions or incidents left in previous sections are eventually answered. The first section of the book set in 1999 was lively & very funny. There’s an ongoing joke that Zee, a Marxist scholar is Marxist–a difference people either don’t understand or deliberately choose not to. Many of the things Zee does or says have a way of boomeranging back at her with snide comments that she’s a commie. Here’s a scene at a university party in which Zee’s arch nemesis,  fellow professor Cole, a professor gets his digs in:

Cole, she realized, was talking to her from down the table, pointing his empty fork at her chest. “Comrade Zilla Grant is uncharacteristically withdrawn today,” he called. “I suspect she’s planning her Marxist revolution!” Before the laughter died down, he continued. “This is why I’ll never leave. She’ll replace me with her minions and all the seniors will take ‘Why Dickens Was a Stalinist.’ “

Misogynistic Professor Cole, who pokes fun of Zee at every opportunity, is one of my favourite characters:

Cole stood to give a brief speech about how he planned, in his twenty-first year at the college, to scare each and every student out of his classes, until he was left with “exactly one attractive and intelligent specimen that will grade its own papers and massage my neck.” When even Golda laughed, Zee pretended to as well. Cole must have felt his age protected him against rumors of impropriety, though Zee understood there were plenty of whispers about the man back in the eighties. Zee heard a senior boy claim he knew “for a fact” that the policy of leaving office doors cracked during office conferences could be traced to Cole’s misbehavior some fifteen years earlier. He’d been married once, briefly, but by the time he came back to campus he’d long been a swinging bachelor–attractive, back then, too–so rumors were bound to follow him. The fact that the rumors stuck, though, spoke to his behavior, not his erstwhile good looks.

With sharply drawn, wonderful characters, it was great fun to see all these people acting badly to get what they want, and there’s the definite sense that the arrival of Case and Miriam unleashes a previously dormant force within the house. Something wakes up–something mischievous. Perhaps it’s the creative presence of artist Miriam, but the house seems to reject those it doesn’t want while others blossom in its environment.  Many mysteries are deep in the history of the house, and these include the secret of Edwin Parfitt, exactly what took place during the colony years, and the reasons behind the suicide of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr whose portrait is in the house, and “no matter where you stood, you couldn’t get Violet to meet your gaze.”

This is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like haunting. But it’s a pull not a push.

In some ways, The Hundred-Year House reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s  Life After Lifeboth novels cover long time spans, with buried clues and connections to the central story revealed as the plot moves backwards, and both novels, for their approach, are ambitious. The Hundred-Year House doesn’t quite succeed, and this is only because not enough attention is given to other time periods. As the novel flashes back, the earlier sections–1900 and 1929 screamed for the attention to detail found in the first two sections: 1999 & 1955. I loved the first section with Miriam’s Trash Art and her so-called Barf Period, the way she collects rubbish, stuffing it in her pocket like some sort of bag lady. There’s also the rowdy family poodle, Hidalgo, who has to be distracted by peanuts or he’ll romp on top of visitors. By the time we’re back in 1900 and 1929, the details aren’t there, the characters aren’t as delightfully developed, so the novel feels rushed and sketchy when compared to the first half. But in spite of the novel’s flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed it, loved the optimism, loved the ideas, and the characters, and so I look forward to this young author’s next book. Wanting a book to be about 200 pages longer isn’t a bad thing.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Makkai Rebecca