Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: "The Strays" by Emily Bitto

"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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