Feature image from THESTELLAPRIZE
THE STRAYS, by Emily Bitto
I have to confess, I knew nothing about this novel before it won The Stella Prize. Emily Bitto’s The Strays tells the story of young friends Lily and Eva. Lily is an only child, born to ‘regular’ parents struggling through the economic depression. She is embarrassed by her parents and the simplicity of their life.
Eva is the middle child in a gang of young girls, born to successful artistic parents who reject conservatism and are able to afford duck for dinner. Eva’s father is a modernist painter, her mother a chic intellectual with old money. They live in a large home which is slowly transformed into collective studio’s.
The story is told from the perspective of Lily, and from this position we witness Eva’s life as an outsider. Over the years, their friendship develops from young girls to maturing teenagers and finally adults.
The unlikely bond between these central characters has resonated with readers, Bitto said. “It’s not really been written about that much: that intensity of friendship between girls in childhood. When you look at literature as a whole, those kind of relationships often get sidelined in favour of romance.”
Lily comes to nuzzle her way into this vibrant art commune (with the indirect support of her mother) taking on the role of silent observer.
Right from the beginning there is a promise of destruction. A fire is alluded to from the first chapter, but it becomes clear as you read that someone more subtle and destructive has taken hold in the house.
There is a beautiful moment when the central characters mature at different speeds, and Lily looks back on their friendship seeing it all again for the first time. It’s obvious they were moving apart.
I loved the art world depicted in The Strays. I almost feel like I am insulting the book by trying to write about it. The characters are quirky and real, the house is magical and the garden is enchanting. So often writers tell stories of writers, poets or playwrights (perhaps writing what they know) and this is a refreshing change from the literary world. It reminded me to paint a little more.
The novel is loosely based on the Heide school of painters. Known as the Heide Circle, the real life group of painters lived just outside Melbourne. These artists were well known for their intertwined personal and professional lives.
“I was particularly drawn to 1930s and 1940s Australia because of the stark divide between the mainstream values of the time and the lifestyle and values of the avant-garde art world.” Bitto THE GUARDIAN.
When Lily finally returns to the house as an older woman, everything is smaller, less magical more grounded and normal.
I read somewhere that this novel was compared to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which is one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a great comparison. The tone and style of the story telling is very similar. But it is the role that a child plays in the long-term outcome for the family that is the obvious connection. The responsibility placed on children so young is explored in both novels, both with disastrous and long term consequences for the whole family.
To me, there was a familiar flavor to Kate Morton’s writing; with the large magical house of the family and the stories and mysteries it held. and the past slipping back to effect the present. Read like a slow simmering mystery.
The beauty of this book for me was the depiction of childhood and female friendship. That bond between the girls was so perfectly represented without being dumbed down or dismissed as irrelevant. It was the story. And certainly caused me to look back on my friendships at that age with more gravity and nostalgia.
THE STRAYS was published in 2014 by Affirm Press in Australia, and is EMILY BITTO‘s debut novel. Emily Bitto has a masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. Her PhD examined the role of the artist in contemporary literature. While studying, she found the persistence of the myth of the male genius.
And won the 2015 STELLA PRIZE which as well as bestowing a life changing career boost for the writer also includes a $50 000 cash prize. Says she will use the money to buy time to work on her second novel.
The Strays took me no time at all to read. It was captivating without being heavy or exhausting. I found it to be one of those books I stayed up reading late into the night.
Reading the book as an emerging writer, what can you learn and study – Elements of story, perspective, time and place that an Emerging writer should think about. First person perspective is nice as an outsider, like the audience. Also a wonderful study in writing memory.
In an article by The Guardian is stated that the novel went through 10 FULL REDRAFTS before being published by Affirm Press
Everything I learned from EMILY BITTO was I think to be gentler with my prose, and plot. That the tail will unravel at its own pace I do not need to be so forceful in moving things along.
She also reminded me of how interesting Artists can be, but how hard they are to hang around with for a long time.
Interestingly while writing she also works full time in a wine bar she opened in Carlton. Love it.
Here is a much better review of this work from the GUARDIAN – Enjoy.