“An artist is someone who sees the structures of order and recognises them as arbitrary.”
-Emily Bitto, The Strays.
Imagine – it’s the 1930’s in Melbourne and the Great Depression is making its presence felt. Amongst the rabble there is a group of artists looking to make a change to the local art scene. Thanks to the wealth and patronage of John and Sunday Reed, the Heidelberg School is created to nurture and grow the talents of artists such Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, John Perceval, Joy Hester and Sidney Nolan. According to documented history at the Heide Museum in Heidleberg, Melbourne, these artists believed that the art scene was both stagnant and restrictive and they looked to modernise Australian art. It is this famous group whom debut author Emily Bitto has found some inspiration for her Stella Prize nominated book, The Strays.
“Family… should be the people you choose to surround yourself with, not the people you happen to be related too.” From a young age, Lily is welcomed into the Trentham family through her friendship with Eva, daughter of Evan Trentham, an infamous avante-garde painter who is trying to break the mould in Australian art. He and his wife Helena invite their good friends and fellow painters to live with them (and their three daughters) in their rambling mansion to paint and enjoy life, dwindling away Helena’s inheritance. What is already an unconventional family life for Bea, Eva and Heloise becomes stranger again; the girls are forced to care for themselves as the ‘adults’ indulge in a utopian-like state. Time is fluid and the alcohol, cigarettes and ‘reefer’ flow freely, encouraging creative licence and free speech. The four girls are left to their own devices, to feed themselves on eggs and scraps of bread and to get to school and back again. Bea is the oldest – quiet and smart – and she holds the family together. Eva is the middle child – wild and free – full of confidence and daring to rebel against her parents and try and make her own way in the world. Heloise is the youngest and is easily left behind. A quiet and strange child, she doesn’t cope with being bossed around and left out of things when the ‘older’ children wish to do something more grown up. She bears the weight of the chaotic family life on her little shoulders and she carries that burden through a tragic life.
As Eva’s best friend, Lily is privy to the lives of the Trentham’s and their friends. She is the only child from a conservative Australian family and so she views the artist’s lives with a curiousity and detachment of an outsider. She notes their behaviour and picks up on the conversation far more than the others do. As she gets older, she keeps notes on what she witnesses in a journal she keeps secret even from Lily. As an adult reflecting back on time and as a child, Lily makes reference several times to ‘the ordinary life’ and how she doesn’t wish to live that life. The more she falls under the artist’s spell, the more she scorns the path her own parents have taken. Later in the book, as an adult herself, she sees the choices her daughter makes as ‘the tyranny of history repeating’, the search for a life more thrilling and adventurous. “The desire to lead an unconventional life… that reverence towards the daring, the creative, the extraordinary… that part of me that is still drawn to the romance of the fully lived life.” An adult Lily resigns herself to the fact that underneath it all, there is ‘some foolish reluctance to accept I have chosen an ordinary life’.
The themes in this book are explored in a familiar yet interesting way. As an only child herself, Bitto has a strong focus on family and friendship and what they mean. Both Helena (an only child) and Evan (from a criminal family) are unhappy with their own families and so they seek to create their own, one more comforting and safe than the ones they were born into. Helena is my favourite character and I suspect Bitto has quite a soft spot for her as well. The reader watches her revel in her female friendships but not with her own daughters; she is jealous of the closeness of Eva and Lily’s friendship and seeks that for herself. Bitto’s descriptions of female friendship is beautiful, “there is no intimacy as great as that between young girls. Even between lovers…there is a constant awareness of separateness, the wonder at the fact that the loved one is distinct [and] whole … without us. It is the lack of such wonder that reveals the depth of intimacy in the first chaste trial marriage between girls.” Bitto focuses on the physical nature of such friendships and whilst they are without sexual intention, they have every intimacy that exists between lovers. Arm in arm with her new best friend, Helena wistfully suggests that perhaps they were married in a past life, searching for a reason for their closeness. Both Helena and Lily experience insecurity with their friendships, something they recognise as having in common having come from single child families.
I loved everything about this book – Bitto’s language is beautiful and lyrical and I enjoyed the way she conversed with time, flitting between Lily’s past and present self in an effortless way. I can see why this novel has been selected for the Stella Prize and I wish Emily all the best when the winner is announced!