The Strays tells the story of whitebread, only-child outsider Lily Struthers and her interactions with the Trenthams, a bohemian family headed by ageing art star Evan.
At school, Lily meets Eva, the middle child of Evan and his moneyed wife, Helena. Lily is swiftly swept up in the electric, albeit stormy, life of the Trentham house, where the three daughters – attention-starved
baby Heloise, strong-willed and rebellious Eva and motherly-type Bea – seemingly run free as their parents focus on offering their grand homestead as an avant-garde ideal for young artists.
But The Strays is not an art world novel. It takes its cues from the Heide Circle – it is predominantly set on the outskirts of Melbourne in the 1930s and comes complete with scandalous debauchery – but essentially we are offered only slim, stereotypical portraits of the artists and their insular, idealised world. The art world is a seemingly easy lure for any writer – grandiose characters and ideas and creation at its core – yet it is a setting that rarely moves beyond cliché and The Strays is no different. Bitto appears to be unapologetic in this sense. She doesn’t succumb to verdant period description of the 1930s and as The Strays is told from the point of view of the guileless Lily, the reader can only be left with a superficial depiction of the world of art and artists.
The strength of the novel is the story of Lily Struthers and her longing to belong. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that she is so unlikeable. As with Evelyn Waugh’s great outsider, Charles Ryder, Lily is stiff and brimming with self-importance.
She wants so much and yet gives so very little – to the Trenthams, her own family and reader alike. Her silent conflict is that she is incapable of engaging with the very world she craves so much. As a result, she unknowingly positions herself as observer, deluding herself that she is a part of this ever-expanding family by proxy. Worse, The Strays is bookended by the present mid-1980s, when Lily and Eva are reunited after 40 years apart. One can forgive an oversensitive, self-indulgent child – a needy, unnecessarily resentful adult is a hard character to warm to.
But an unlikeable character is always an interesting dilemma for a reader, and in her debut novel Bitto has certainly created one who lingers long after the last page. BT
Affirm, 336pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Emily Bitto, The Strays". Subscribe here.