The Strays – Emily Bitto

I haven’t read something like this in a while. The Strays is one of those books that you can either speed through in a day, or leisurely make your way through over a few weeks as you slowly take in the beautiful language and soak up the story.

There’s a review in the front of the book by Bookseller + Publisher which gives it a 4 & 1/2 star review and says:

‘You could lift out any sentence in The Strays and admire the sheer artistry of its melody and composition… It’s an immensely pleasurable read.’

I have to agree. But let’s give it a try… I’ll choose a random excerpt right now:

When the routine of school resumed, the girls and I woke at seven. We walked softly past Evan and Helena’s door, left ajar by Evan when he got up to begin work early. Helena was always nested in cushions, her dark hair spread out across the bedding. By then, Evan was usually in the studio. (pg. 134)

Okay, that that was a few sentences. But still, something about the language is immaculate. The balance in the first sentence: “When the routine of school resumed, the girls and I woke at seven”. 14 syllables broken in half. Like a poem almost. Ordered, like the routine that is a school day.

I love too the image of Helena “nested in cushions”. She sounds so comfortable, so secure, so beautiful. Like a baby bird.

So, the story, in a nutshell:

We follow the character of Lily as she takes us, first person, back to 1930s Melbourne and her life as a virtually adopted daughter of the famous Trentham art family. Evan Trentham is a renowned (and somewhat scandalous) modern artist who, with his wife Helena, invites  a crowd of other budding modern artists to live with them in their big house. In conservative 1930s Australia, their lifestyle and their art style is exciting, and considered quite inappropriate.

Lily befriends Eva Trentham, one of the three daughters. She comes to live with the family for a long time, as her own parents struggle financially following the Depression. Lily seems to know that she is a part of that that will make history. She knows these people are special. But Evan and Helena are reckless parents, who let their daughters fend for themself. Bringing young male artists into a household of daughters was not a good idea… and eventually leads to some very sad events.

I delighted in seeing Melbourne landmarks and towns mentioned, like a starstruck young reader. (Ooh! It says Flinders Lane! I go there every day for work! Ooh! Toorak! But I used to live there!!) You don’t get to see that too much. Melbourne is not the setting of many books I’ve read before.

I would have preferred a more detailed description of the artists in the Trentham house earlier on in the book, as I did get a little confused as to who was who until about half way through. Maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention?

I also felt that the ending was a bit… nothing. I felt that things weren’t tied off, and I felt a bit disappointed.

Nevertheless, I think Bitto has done a beautiful job with The Strays. The language is gorgeous, the setting and time period is exciting and makes for an interesting read.

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