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Strays 6

by Emily Bitto

Paperback / softback Publication Date: 01/05/2014

4/5 Rating 6 Reviews Add your review

In The Strays, Evan Trentham is the wild child of the Melbourne art world of the 1930s.

He and his captivating wife, Helena, attempt to carve out their own small niche, to escape the stifling conservatism they see around them, by gathering together other like-minded artists. They create a utopian circle within their family home, offering these young artists a place to live and work, and the mixed benefits of being associated with the infamous Evan.

At the periphery of this circle is Lily Struthers, the best friend of Evan and Helena's daughter Eva. Lily is infatuated by the world she bears witness to, and longs to be part of this enthralling makeshift family. As Lily observes years later, looking back on events that she still carries painfully within her, the story of this groundbreaking circle involved the same themes as Evan Trentham's art: Faustian bargains and terrible recompense; spectacular fortunes and falls from grace.

Yet it was not Evan, nor the other artists he gathered around him, but his own daughters, who paid the debt that was owing.

**Shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsboro Crown for Historical Debut Fiction**

Contemporary fiction
Paperback / softback
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Affirm Press
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Emily Bitto

Emily Bitto lives in Melbourne. She has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.

Her writing has appeared in various publications, including Meanjin, Island, HEAT, the Age, the Saturday Paper and The Sydney Morning Herald.

The manuscript of her debut novel, The Strays was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and the published novel went on to win the 2015 Stella Prize.

It was also shortlisted for The Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction, the NSW Premier’s Prize for New Writing and the Dobbie Literary Award, and longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC prize.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Beautifully written

    by on

    The way in which Emily Bitto has used words to craft the story are just beautiful. One can feel the pain of the characters in the final chapters. I have bought another copy to give to a friend!

  • ‘In a house, as in a garden, there is a point when over-mingling can occur.’

    by on

    The novel opens with Lily receiving an invitation to a retrospective exhibition of the art of Evan Trentham, one of the early Modernists. Lily, now middle-aged, first met the Trentham family when she met Eva Trentham on her first day at school. The invitation reminds Lily of (and introduces the reader to) members of the Trentham family and to the artist colony they founded in the 1930s on the outskirts of Melbourne.

    Lily is an only child, and through her friendship with Eva, becomes very familiar with the Trentham family. She finds the Trentham household very different from her own. In addition to the Trentham family (Helena, Evan and their three daughters Bea, Eva and Heloise), the household also includes another painter (Patrick) and his partner (Vera). Three other artists, Ugo, Maria and Jerome join the household shortly afterwards. It’s a household full of ‘strays’, and while the adults pursue their objectives (artistic and otherwise) the children are largely left to their own devices.

    Family circumstances lead to Lily effectively joining the Trentham household, and learning that bohemian freedom can also has a dark side. As Lily looks back on the past, bridging the gap between the 1930s and the 1980s, we learn about the strength of some friendships and the betrayal (perhaps) of others.

    ‘This is what adulthood is, I thought: this secrecy; this cultivation of separateness.’

    Many of the characters in this novel are complex, and the setting are beautifully described. While I found few of the characters likeable, they each seemed a perfect fit in the world Emily Bitto created for them: adults mostly oblivious to the need to take responsibility for children and children unaware of the consequences of their actions. Can friendship survive the many challenges of life in such a household? What has Lily learned from her life with the Trenthams? And Evan Trentham and the other artists? Can there be a balance between creativity and destruction?

    ‘For some, the years spent with another person – the fights, the lovers, the separations – are all knowledge of that person, all shades of intimacy and history.’

    I loved Emily Bitto’s description of the Trentham world, shuddered each time parental or adult responsibility was avoided, and wondered what would happen as each child became an adult. And the ending? How should such a story end? Does Lily Struthers ever belong? While I finished the novel with questions, they were not questions about the construction of the novel and the way it worked. My questions are a consequence of the issues raised within the novel, about people, their choices and consequences.

    ‘The Strays’ is in part inspired by the artists of the Heide Circle, who lived and worked at ‘Heide’ between the 1930s and 1950s. Emily Bitto was awarded the 2015 Stella Prize for ‘The Strays’. She is the first novelist to win the award for her debut novel.

    Jennifer Cameron-Smith

  • I shall treasure this gem

    by on

    The Strays is a beautiful and eloquent debut by Emily Bitto, winner of The Stella Prize 2015.

    It’s the 1930’s, and Eva and Lily are best friends. Eva is a natural born bohemian, daughter to artists and modernists Helena and Evan Trentham. The girls ‘come-of-age’ in the Trentham’s artist colony in the outskirts of Melbourne, in a time when the world is wedged between world wars and the Australian art community is battling strong opposition to the modern art movement and social change.

    Bitto's prose tumbles into a beautifully crafted story, with strong balanced female leads. Eva is fearless, unique and spirited, while Lily is thoughtful and curious. The young girls have an idyllic relationship, and are bonded by their lifestyle... albeit to be inevitably interrupted by other desires.

    I adore stories set in my beloved Melbourne town, and Bitto took me right there - to the heart of Melbourne in the 30’s. I’m almost upset I wasn’t there to be friends with Eva and Lily, and experience such a life at an early age...

    The Strays is truly a standout, and I shall treasure my beloved copy and recommend it highly.

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