Book Review — The Strays (2014) by Emily Bitto

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

When I think of friendships between young women in novels, it takes me a minute to come up with really solid ones, and I’ll say right out of the gate (because nothing is more endearing at the beginning of a review than following an admission of personal shortcoming with a horse racing idiom) that that’s on me.

Part of it is that the works of fiction I’ve read that feature women as central characters have been books that feature a single central girl or woman: Nancy Drew, Matilda, Mary Lennox, Emma Woodhouse, Madame Bovary. Another is that in books from my childhood, where heroines were more common, friendships between girls were quite timeless and prepubescent (Heidi and Klara in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi), and in my teen fiction reading, where girls and guys romped around together, such friendships were side plots (Ellie and Fiona in John Marsden’s Tomorrow series).

As for literary fiction, I’ll leave it to the great and well-founded generalisations about entrenched bias and discrimination in the education system and the publishing industry to explain why robust female friendships haven’t cropped up there. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis merits a mention, the protagonist’s rebellious teen years especially, but still, in no book I’ve read does a genuine and nuanced relationship between women take centre stage – Persepolis is one woman’s coming of age.

As you may have guessed, just as the way it is written makes it engaging and vivid, a point of difference on the matter of female friendships makes Emily Bitto’s The Strays unique. Because in it, Bitto has done something very moving, which is to tell a story about a great many familiar things – adults, lust, art, self-discovery, rebellion, ego, shame, family – whilst very calmly and gently, almost invisibly, placing them second in order of priority to the friendship of one young woman with another.

The narrator, Lily, is in her middle years – she has a second husband and a daughter in her twenties – and she is looking back from the 1980s on the friendship in question, which began in primary school. Eva Trentham, the girl Lily befriends in the 1930s, is the middle of three daughters to Evan and Helena Trentham, a couple destined to plunge Melbourne’s staid attitudes to art into a torrid new world. And Eva takes Lily with a bewitching unselfconsciousness into their home, a rambling mansion of a place, as what will soon be one of several “strays”. Lily isn’t homeless, or an orphan – she is an only child to a fond but dull suburban couple – and the delight with which she adopts this second home is an empathic lynchpin of the novel. In Eva and the Trenthams, Lily finds a sister, and then a family, the depths of her desire for which she never fully understood.

I wanted to be with her always and would have discarded my own parents, heartlessly, as only the securely cared-for can.

The Trenthams’ other “strays”, who orbit around and finally into the house, are like-minded artists who the Trenthams take in, bent on fostering a radical alternative to art as it then existed in Australia. It is this micro-community, with all its keenly observed intricacies and subtexts, that forms the backdrop of Lily’s vivid, bittersweet fascinations.

The whole thing is beautiful, clear, heartwarming and tragic. By appearing to unfold the story of these magnetic artists in Melbourne in the 1930s and ’40s (and a controversy that was born in their turbulent communal home), Bitto has created a whole, fascinating set of catalysts for the crystallisations of Lily and Eva. Using these brilliant personalities and their liberal attitudes as bedrock and fuel, the formation, fruition and absence of friendships between women is shown at all stages, as is the perverting influence of sex, sexuality, desire and adulthood.

Together, the girls grow, and smalls wars grow around them, sucking them up and apart into the vortex of adult behaviour in a bohemia where vices are sometimes romanticised too far. The two girls seem to be skating on surface tension, beneath which lies a darker world, but the intimacy they share is so sweet and true that the author, the writer, kindles every part of the story gently, without foreboding or malice. That they love each other is first.

Eva and I glanced at each other, aware that both of us had been quietly consuming, engorging on the knowledge of these adult games, that we would try out the same adult laughter later in our fresh-dusted dormitory. There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumours of sex that wafted towards us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.

If you could level a criticism at this book, it is that its framing is needlessly “meta” – Lily is a writer, writing this book, so is it a book by Emily Bitto or a book by Lily? Published now or in the 1980s? It is a tacky line of questioning to put in the reader’s mind, the sort that went out with mid-nineties thrillers, and it wrests you from immersion. But god, is that a petty complaint, and I make it because it is the only quibble that disturbs this otherwise seamless novel.

Bitto’s narrative hold, her imagery, her similes (christ, the similes) and her masterful, artless navigation of Lily and Eva’s transformation from girls to women are so finely tuned that I often stopped to bask – not only in their company, but also in the company of the entire, brilliant collective of personalities Bitto creates in such elegant brevity. Beyond the beauty of this intimacy between girls (which I did not have as a boy, and am retrospectively yearning for), the years spent in the Trentham home felt as valuable to me as they did to Lily, for every warm body and quick wit and good heart that moved there: Evan a captivating weathermaker, Maria a fiery hearth, Ugo a gentle comfort, Helena an enigmatic caretaker, Jerome a dangerous talent.

Without saying more about the story, it is impossible to qualify further, but no book I’ve read for this project has slipped its arms around me so easily, felt like such a gentle, clever friend, and passed by me having wanted so little in return. I heard about this book because it made the shortlist for, and then won, the Stella Prize.

On winning, Bitto said, “I cannot even begin to quantify the benefits this award will bring.” Thank fuck for the Stella. I hope it brings another book.

The No Man’s Land Reading Project so far:
#1: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler
#2: Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell
#3: The Compass Rose (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin
#4: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
#5: The Tall Man (2008) by Chloe Hooper
#6 The Watch Tower (1966) by Elizabeth Harrower
#7 The Autograph Man (2002) by Zadie Smith
#8 The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
#9 The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt
#10 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Brontë

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