The Strays is the memoir of Lily, her time spent growing up in the whirling modern art circle of Melbourne in the 1930s, loosely based on Australia’s Heide artists. Drawn to the glamour and creativity, Lily is rebelling against her own quiet upbringing, as the artists rebel against conservative Australia. Compulsive and beautiful and vivid and interesting, full of terror and unspoken threat, this book pulls you in to the intensity and community of that world.
On Lily’s first day at a new school, seemingly at random she is befriended by Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous modern painter Evan Trentham. She is drawn into their world, full of creativity and money and wild adults and beautiful sisters. The home of the Trethams is establishment money meets avant-garde art as Eva’s parents invite other modernists into their home to create a new makeshift family of creativity and communalism.
Lily is an outsider in this world, an observer in their mad, beautiful family. Parties and painting, avant-garde art and censorship, only child Lily is swept up in the complex, political world. There are forces at play in the house, from the art world, from the Government, from the dynamics and sexual back and forth within the adults. It is a sparkling, scary world to grow up in.
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 on the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumours of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.
Emily Bitto is a beautiful writer, and there is a quiet, present intensity to the scenes she evokes. This book is lyrical, compulsively paced, elegant; whole worlds of terror or adult fears scratching at the edges of the girls’ awareness. Together in their intense world of adolescent female friendship, Lily and Eva grow up together but secrets begin to infiltrate their relationship as the house itself begins to pull at the seams. The lifestyle that Evan and Helena Tretham choose for themselves and their children creates a raging, makeshift family but to get there, Faustian bargains are made, and there are stunning falls from grace.
As choices made across generations pattern over their lives, it is the Trenthams’ daughters who feel the repercussions of their parents’ radicalism. That phase of her life has shaped Lily beyond her own awareness, and as the book progresses you can see her repeating the same choices her parents made – a single child – as well as the same choices the Trenthams made – opening her home to her daughter’s friend as a makeshift family – as she remains haunted about how that house broke up. Belonging and family, chosen and born.
But, quietly, definitely, this book is also about art, creators, myth, and adventure. What an incredible world to be in, what a time to be alive, what art to watch being created. The adults in the Trenthams’ house were ambitious and loyal and bright and creative: to be a teenage girl and feel even just a little bit a part of their world is an incredible and exiting thing.
One the stark white gallery wall though, outlined by wide frames, they assumed a new weight and significance…I noticed the intent gazes with which people examined the paintings on the walls, leaning in or back, their hands lightly touching their own faces, waists, hearts, as if to steady themselves against being unmoored from the bodies.
The Strays won The Stella Prize this year, and now I’ve been pulled into this compulsive, sparkling, scary world I can see why. This amazing bohemian ideal – artists and their children, free from society, creating and living and loving together – was too beautiful, too perfect, to work. And I knew this, but I was so caught up in Lily’s optimism, her adopted sisters, her very cool adolescence. And the writing: there were such moments of distilled beauty, captured times of intensity and reality, crystallised down into a few lines that just hit you with the force of a perfectly communicated point of time. Sun on limbs, a sneaky joint, the prickly hot gravel on your feet, the intense fear when you’re locked out of the mythologised gate, sitting and watching adults you love and revere and the world they’ve created, knowing the secrets you shouldn’t know.
I loved this book. The story, the people, the layers of myth and belonging, the whole concept of life growing up in the middle of Melbourne’s modern art circle, the sharp focus with which teenagehood and female friendship has been distilled. The Strays caught me up, pulled me in, and left me bereft.