Cover Image: The Strays

The Strays

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The cover of this book is what initially lured me into the story, but the tale of these three sisters while being raised by their boho parents was such an emotional ride.
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I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Lily, a teenager from a humble family, becomes enchanted with a classmate who has a seemingly glamorous life.  Circumstances create a need for Lily to reside with Eva's family, an artist father, heiress mother, and two other daughters.  In addition to the family, the sprawling house becomes an artists' colony, and residents move in who change the course of the family forever.

As an adult, while both estranged from Eva and yet stil somewhat connected to the family, Lily struggles with secrets that she kept as a teenager.

Compelling novel with disturbing twists and turns in the plot.
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This book is a gift for anyone interested in children who “adopt” a special family to fill in gaps left by their own.  It also tells the tale of friendships between young girls that are too often derailed by boyfriends, husbands, passionate talents.  There’s an exquisite quality to Eva’s and Lily’s un-self-conscious connection, as if only they know the steps to this dance. But from the opening of the novel, the reader knows that many hearts will be broken as the story moves through the years between primary school and adolescence. There is a sense of inevitability and foreboding even as the author movingly conveys the innocence and adventure of childhood. 
     I highly recommend this new Australian novel. I read it in twenty-four hours and was sorry when it ended. I will look forward to future work by Ms Bitto.
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I am torn on my true rating of this book. Some chapters and passages really spoke to me and others felt very contrived and forced. Overall, I really enjoyed the story and the fictional account of history and an art community in Australia during I knew very little about.
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I had to DNF after 15% - this novel was not what I thought it would be,.  I was expecting a quirky story, but it came off stilted.  The narrator had no personality like Mrs. de Winter from Rebecca.  I really like the cover!  thank you for the opportunity to read this book.
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Beautifully written!  The style reminded me of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich,  which is high praise.
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This book nagged at me and struggled to give my feedback. I read this tale in one sitting or lie in bed. I wanted to care about Lilly and Eva and their friendship and the utopian art colony idealistic sensibilities that the novel portrays. However, as I continued to read and as the tale unfolded I felt less enamored by the characters and irritated by the careless parents, both Eva's artist parents and Lilly's 'normal' ones.   The adults in this novel simply refused to be adults and take responsibility for their children and the results are simply sad.
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April 21, 2017
REVIEW: THE STRAYS BY EMILY BITTO
 


"Are you listening, girls... I want you to understand that art is never wrong or immoral." 


The Strays begins on Lily's first day at a new school where she befriends Eva Trentham, daughter of avant-guarde painter Evan Trentham and his wife Helena. Loosely based on the Heide Circle, a group of artists in 1930s Australia who lived on a old dairy farm, The Strays ventures into a bohemian artist colony through the eyes of Lily. As the only child of a conservative working class family, she longs to immerse herself in the bohemian world of the Trenthams. 


"Trying to describe my friendship with Eva is like showing the slides from a life-changing journey. The images can never break their borders and make their way into the body...they can never convey the feeling of profound change, brought about simply by altering one's place in the world."

Little by little, Lily becomes a fixture in the house and her and Eva become inseparable. Evan and Helena's parenting consists mostly of forced self reliance as the girls must fend for themselves amongst all the other "strays" in an environment filled with temperamental artists and adult gatherings. Spending their days on the outskirts of the adults' glamorous lives, the girls lounge around the garden with stolen alcohol and cigarettes while contemplating the life questions that plague adolescents. Unfortunately, this living arrangement isn't the utopia it seems and soon Lily begins to see that the idyllic life she so coveted my not be everything she dreamed.

Emily Bitto has won several Australian literary prizes for The Strays, and I can understand why. Her writing style is informative yet plain, which I say as a positive. She lets the characters shine by keeping the story less plot driven and more slow burning. She writes with a gentle, melancholy, and contemplative hand the tale of a liberal family's struggles in conservative 1930s Australian society. 

One big theme recurring throughout the novel is the definition of family. Is it biology or choice? Eva and Lily are not related, but they form a strong sisterly bond that Eva lacks with her two biological sisters. Evan and Helena Trentham make the choice to, for all intents and purposes, neglect their children and construct their own "family" from the many artists they invite to live in their home. In many ways we see how this can be a positive, the ability to create a family where one's own fails, but whether we want it to or not, one's blood relations can impact in ways we can never fully understand yet are incapable of stopping.

Another idea the author plays with is that of women in art as timelines for male artists. Women artists of that time are rarely allowed to stand on their own. They must be placed along the timeline of their husbands and lovers. Helena allowed herself to take a backseat to Evan's career and become a wife and mother, but quickly she begins to resent her decision. In an effort to right a wrong in her life, she begins to gather all of the "strays" into her fold to keep it from happening to them. In her mind, she can provide a living arrangement for female artists to flourish without succumbing to societal pressures. 

Bookended by an adult Lily trying to make sense of things and coming to terms with the guilt for the role she played, The Strays delves into the intense friendships of youth and the need to belong to someone somewhere. The characters felt a little one dimensional, but it seems to be on purpose. We're reading about these people through the eyes of a child who very well may not have understood the depths and intricacies of adult life. There is a definite sentiment that many family secrets are intertwined and buried, and it says a lot about an author who can refrain from digging into the indiscretions. Anything more than presented would have felt exploitative.

The Strays was an enjoyable journey into a period of Australian history with which I am unfamiliar. In fact, I would have enjoyed a slightly longer version with more to ground the story in the 30s and 40s. The elements of art decency during that time period were fascinating but all too fleeting, and I wouldn't have been opposed to a slightly longer work that dove a little deeper into the historical fiction realm, but what Bitto has provided is quite worth the read.



*I received this book as an advance reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Haunting book
Highly recommend
Characters stick with you
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I found this most interesting from the perspective of 1930s Melbourne.  Eva and Lily are interesting as characters but some of this felt strained to me.  The crisis and its aftermath are critical to the story but I was disappointed at how the circle was closed at the end.  The writing is quite nice.  THanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  Bitto is definitely one to watch in the future.
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I did not finish this book as I did not engage with this story at all.
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This book was good! The time period was hard for me to really get into. All in all good book
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There was an undeniably modern feel to this book that I couldn't quite shake while reading. Is it possible for something to be tonally anachronistic? Because that's what it felt like. There was nothing glaringly wrong: characters weren't talking on cell phones or writing emails or ordering take out, but in a way, the exclusion of these things felt more awkward and unnatural than their inclusion would have. I had to constantly, constantly remind myself that this story wasn't taking place in the present. Though this book is set against the backdrop of a specific historical context in 1930s Australia, this element was never embraced to its full potential. 

That said, I couldn't help but to really enjoy this book. Emily Bitto's prose is sophisticated and articulate, her characters compelling for their flaws. The Strays is about a young girl, Lily, who befriends the daughter of a prominent Australian avant-garde painter, and spends most of her time at their house-turned artists' colony. The exploration of relationships (those between friends, between parents and children, between lovers) are all imbued with tenderness and fragility. I enjoyed immersing myself in these characters' lives and getting to the bottom of the dissension that rose between them. This book was a superb character study, and as such I'd recommend it to fans of literary fiction over fans of historical fiction. 

Though, I would be curious to learn whether Emily Bitto has siblings. Her depiction of only children as lonely and unfulfilled struck me as rather disingenuous - why is it that people with siblings always think only children are either spoiled or miserable? Apologies to Emily Bitto if she is in fact an only child and reflecting on her own experiences. They're just not experiences that are shared by me, or any other only children that I know.
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I'd rate this 3.5 stars.

"Trying to describe my friendship with Eva is like showing the slides from a life-changing journey. The images can never break their borders and make their way into the body, into the nose, the ears, the entrails; they can never convey the feeling of profound change, brought about simply by altering one's place in the world."

Lily met Eva Trentham, the daughter of an infamous Australian painter, when they were young girls, on Lily's first day in a new school. An only child, raised modestly by parents who seemed perfectly happy with their quiet, ordinary lives, Lily is quickly besotted with Eva and her two sisters, Bea and Heloise. And when Lily is invited to visit the Trenthams' home, she immediately falls in love with the bohemian lifestyle Eva's parents, Evan and Helena, have created, letting the children fend for themselves, surrounded by art, nature, and raucous parties.

Little by little, Lily becomes a part of the Trentham household, and she and Eva become inseparable. Evan and Helena create a sort-of artists' colony in their own home, inviting three young artists to come and live with them, and together they will challenge the mores and stuffiness of the conservative Australian art scene. Even though she feels fully immersed in the magical atmosphere the Trenthams have created, and her parents are all too happy to let her live with Eva's family, Lily knows that she will be always be just an outsider.

But as the girls get older, Lily starts to realize that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Evan's work seems to be eclipsed by that of one of his protegés, the government is cracking down on what they view to be "indecent" art, and each of the girls, even young Heloise, has their own obsession with the handsome young artists who live with them. And then Lily realizes she has been the one left in the dark, and the secrets that have ramifications which will irreparably change a number of lives.

The Strays shifts back and forth between Lily's somewhat magical life among the Trenthams and her fellow strays, to the present day, when she attends a retrospective of Evan's work. This is a story of the intense friendships of youth, the feeling of belonging in a place far different than you were raised, and the jealousy and heartbreak which comes from actually finding yourself on the outside.

"What I feel is the sense of futility that emerges when the past is laid side by side with the present, like two photographs taken many years apart, when it becomes clear that there is no more time."

The themes of the haves and the have-nots, of the outsider being brought into a life they had heretofore only imagined and/or wished for, are both tremendously familiar in literature. Emily Bitto tweaks them a bit, so there is a freshness to the plot you've seen many times before. The characters are flawed yet interesting, and while you have your suspicions about how the story will unfold, there still are a few surprises.

While the book tried to capture the battle between art and government-mandated decency, I don't think it focused on that topic enough, so it seemed a bit nebulous. One troubling thread of the story didn't get focused on enough, and I'm not sure if that was because the family tried not to deal with it, or if it just got lost. But all in all, this is a captivating story of friendship, love, creativity, betrayal, and finally finding one's place in the world. It's both heartwarming and tragic, tempestuous and grounded.

NetGalley and Twelve Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!
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“It is strange which events leave those deep scars we carry with us over a lifetime. When Heloise talked about that night, even years later,  it was with a bitter seriousness, a complete inability to see the events other than as they occurred to her seven-year-old self.  It became a foundation myth, a lasting symbol of the troubled nature of Heloise’s childhood, the real sufferings she endured, but also the way she experienced these sufferings, reliving them over and over until they wore away their own caged-animal paths within her.”

Lily becomes one of the ‘strays’, so to speak, that the daughter of  infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham adds to the family. It isn’t long before her childhood  revolves around the bohemian lifestyle of the brood and their fascinating, talented friends that come and go. Her own life as an only child to average parents makes her ravenous with a need to fit in with a larger family and with the Trentham bunch, she has found a treasure of love, wildness, and seeing the world with raw emotions through their artistic minds. But Lily will never be one of them at her core, though she longs to be. Her first love affair is for her best friend Eva and with the entire family. What bond is deeper than those formed in childhood, particularly those of female friendships? Though she doesn’t share blood, they become sisters all the same but things deteriorate when other people enter the scene. Sometimes an open existence can be the downfall of the children. People the family supports may well have ill intentions, could they be attracting hangers on simply for their money and fame?

Vastly different from the routines and stability of Lily’s own small family of three , the Trenthams live much more freely, but witnessing adult situations and conversations with a child’s mind can be too much too soon. Overexposure can cloud ones thoughts to the point they don’t see threats. What will the cost of such a life be for the Evan Trentham’s daughters and what does it mean when Lily’s welcome is revoked because of Eva’s disastrous decision? There is a turn I didn’t quite see coming. The eccentricities of the artistic are fascinating from a distance, and often harmless but what does wearing a persona do to your loved ones? How does it change them? Children need freedom but they need parents, even the most feral child needs a place that remains stable and nurturing. Mother Helena has built a carefree universe alongside her brilliant husband and let her child fall by the wayside, in thinking there is no greater gift than an artist’s existence but that is a form of neglect. The finger of blame spins in this circle and lands at the heart of both parents. There is one line that made me think of Evan and Helena, “Evan and Helena were romantic, a blurry form we glimpsed as we passed the kitchen doorway, haloed by a diminishing candle.” So they remain- blurry, romantic, these beautiful forms that are more an artwork than actual parents.

Throughout the novel, it is understood Lily will always be seen as inferior, ordinary, withering beside the talent and open minds of the Trentham clan. Like an orphaned child, when chaos turns the family upside down and sets them upon each other, Lily longs to return to their nest. She is seduced by the family fiction as much as she is tangled in their fall, haunted by the clarity of truth. There is much to resent and damn the parents in the fall of the girls just as there is unnecessary cruelty in the distance Eva puts between them. Lily is torn and her choices have lasting repercussions, but what else could she have done?

Nothing happens violently, it is that the reader feels much like Lily,  a voyeur in the Trentham home, close as one can be and yet separate. Lily is addicted to the pulse of the place, she is the moon to their sun, lit up by fire that isn’t meant for her. There is something seductive about people different from your own and when Lily sheds her family, slips into the Trentham home she remains always on the periphery, a vessel of their sorrows. Does she ever truly recover? Can you ever bridge the distance when your presence is a brutal reminder?

As for the man that is ruinous to the family, is it really an invasion and abduction of affections when you never put up any defenses? Is it just a kingdom of fools, ruled by a mad king and blind queen?

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Winner of Australia’s 2015 Stella Prize

Twelve Books
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Exceptional read- some of the only literary fiction being published is from Australian women writers-
One of the best portraits of girlhood friendship ever-the prose is gorgeous- reminded me vaguely of Hideous Kinky- parents
of a certain age in time living  the bohemian life at cost to their children.
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This book transported me to another time and place - the sign of a good book!  The author does a wonderful job of describing the atmosphere surrounding these unorthodox artists where Lily is treated as part of the family - until she isn't.  

Lily is an interesting character.  It's hard for me to imagine a child of 8 being so besotted with another family that she would prefer to spend all her time with them and not with her own parents.  But I guess that goes to show the allure these different people had for her.

The story is intriguing as it follows Lily through her life and shows how important her time with Bea, Eva, and Heloise was to her and how it influenced her life.  Evan and Helena were - to put it kindly - absent parents - - and it's no wonder there were tragic consequences.  The only person in that whole world (besides Lily) to end up seeming 'normal' was Bea.

A very touching and thought-provoking read.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for offering a copy of this title for review. This story was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2013, released in Australia in 2014, and just published in the U.S. This was both a coming-of-age story and a glimpse into the wild and bohemian art world of 1930's Australia, as the struggle between the traditional and the modernist collide. Lily is an only-child, off traditional suburban parents. At age 8, Lily meets Eva and she enters a different world. Eva is one of three children, born to parents who are more at home with their avant-garde art scene than Depression-era Melbourne. Lily forms a fierce and emotional bond with Lily, that can only be developed by innocent children. When Lily enters Eva's world, she is exposed to discussions of art, society, a different way of living, a freedom from the burdens of everyday life. However, she also sees the flip side of that wild, bohemian way of living, is often neglect of the children that leads them to pay the ultimate price of the lifestyle. I thought this novel was moving, horrifying and magical. The story casts its spell on the reader and draws you in to this world, and draws on real life events; however, the main characters are entirely fictional. A beautifully written story.
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