Book Review: The Strays | Emily Bitto

“When was it that I became a voyeur in their midst? I was the perfect witness, an unsuspected anthropologist disguised within the body of a young girl…”


When Lily meets Eva, daughter of infamous and eccentric painter, Evan Trentham, she is exposed to the extraordinary life the Trenthams have created for themselves. Letting their three daughters run wild, Evan and Helena live a chaotic and bohemian life at the centre of an artists’commune for like-minded painters. Through Eva, Lily glimpses an alternative future for herself, vastly different from her own ordinary upbringing. “I had broken out of some brittle carapace and was unfurling in the sunlight.”

Shortlisted for the 2015 Stella prize, The Strays was written by Melbourne writer Emily Bitto. The Stella prize began in 2013 and aims to recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature. This year it will be drawn on 21 April 2015.

Mostly set in Melbourne in the 1930s and 1940s, The Strays is a fictional story, influenced by the changes in the Australian art world of the time. Labelled a degenerate by conservatives, Evan Trentham plays up to his mad artist stereotype, thus ensuring his fame until old age.

The author plays with themes of madness throughout the story, a relevant theme as we often like to think of creative people tainted with at least a hint of madness.

Bitto is something of an artist herself, skilled at turning everyday scenes into original and beautiful metaphors: “Laughter, the smells of cooking, were already in the kitchen, waking up the pots and pans from their bat-like sleep, dangling by their handles above the bench.”

Though she is a regular in the Trentham household for many years, Lily never manages to truly become part of the circle. She is “a cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hoarding and collecting information.”  She is forever altered by her time spent with the Trenthams. She is haunted by her silence in the face of events she could have prevented. It is through remembering the past and her best friend Eva that she learns to heal.

Beautifully written with luscious detail and plenty of intrigue, The Strays is a more than worthy contender for the upcoming Stella award.


Emily Russell

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