The Strays by Emily Bitto


“It is strange which events leave those deep scars we carry with us over a lifetime. When Heloise talked about that night, even years later,  it was with a bitter seriousness, a complete inability to see the events other than as they occurred to her seven-year-old self.  It became a foundation myth, a lasting symbol of the troubled nature of Heloise’s childhood, the real sufferings she endured, but also the way she experienced these sufferings, reliving them over and over until they wore away their own caged-animal paths within her.”

Lily becomes one of the ‘strays’, so to speak, that the daughter of  infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham adds to the family. It isn’t long before her childhood  revolves around the bohemian lifestyle of the brood and their fascinating, talented friends that come and go. Her own life as an only child to average parents makes her ravenous with a need to fit in with a larger family and with the Trentham bunch, she has found a treasure of love, wildness, and seeing the world with raw emotions through their artistic minds. But Lily will never be one of them at her core, though she longs to be. Her first love affair is for her best friend Eva and with the entire family. What bond is deeper than those formed in childhood, particularly those of female friendships? Though she doesn’t share blood, they become sisters all the same but things deteriorate when other people enter the scene. Sometimes an open existence can be the downfall of the children. People the family supports may well have ill intentions, could they be attracting hangers on simply for their money and fame?

Vastly different from the routines and stability of Lily’s own small family of three , the Trenthams live much more freely, but witnessing adult situations and conversations with a child’s mind can be too much too soon. Overexposure can cloud ones thoughts to the point they don’t see threats. What will the cost of such a life be for the Evan Trentham’s daughters and what does it mean when Lily’s welcome is revoked because of Eva’s disastrous decision? There is a turn I didn’t quite see coming. The eccentricities of the artistic are fascinating from a distance, and often harmless but what does wearing a persona do to your loved ones? How does it change them? Children need freedom but they need parents, even the most feral child needs a place that remains stable and nurturing. Mother Helena has built a carefree universe alongside her brilliant husband and let her child fall by the wayside, in thinking there is no greater gift than an artist’s existence but that is a form of neglect. The finger of blame spins in this circle and lands at the heart of both parents. There is one line that made me think of Evan and Helena, “Evan and Helena were romantic, a blurry form we glimpsed as we passed the kitchen doorway, haloed by a diminishing candle.” So they remain- blurry, romantic, these beautiful forms that are more an artwork than actual parents.

Throughout the novel, it is understood Lily will always be seen as inferior, ordinary, withering beside the talent and open minds of the Trentham clan. Like an orphaned child, when chaos turns the family upside down and sets them upon each other, Lily longs to return to their nest. She is seduced by the family fiction as much as she is tangled in their fall, haunted by the clarity of truth. There is much to resent and damn the parents in the fall of the girls just as there is unnecessary cruelty in the distance Eva puts between them. Lily is torn and her choices have lasting repercussions, but what else could she have done?

Nothing happens violently, it is that the reader feels much like Lily,  a voyeur in the Trentham home, close as one can be and yet separate. Lily is addicted to the pulse of the place, she is the moon to their sun, lit up by fire that isn’t meant for her. There is something seductive about people different from your own and when Lily sheds her family, slips into the Trentham home she remains always on the periphery, a vessel of their sorrows. Does she ever truly recover? Can you ever bridge the distance when your presence is a brutal reminder?

As for the man that is ruinous to the family, is it really an invasion and abduction of affections when you never put up any defenses? Is it just a kingdom of fools, ruled by a mad king and blind queen?

Available Now

Winner of Australia’s 2015 Stella Prize

Twelve Books

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