It was hard to approach Emily Bitto’s debut novel The Strays without any expectations. People have been raving about it since it was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and the hype got even crazier since the story won this year’s Stella Prize (it was also shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards and is on the Dobbie Award shortlist). So I couldn’t help but enter the book expecting it to be flipping amazing. Also, I was super excited to read it because the story is about a group of bohemian artists living together in the early 20th century in Melbourne – I grew up right near Heide, and even though The Strays is not actually based on those artists, it certainly seems to draw inspiration from the activities and shenanigans that went on there.
For the most part, all my expectations were met. One of the most notable (and best) things about The Strays is how well Bitto created an unsettling narrative that left me deeply disturbed and feeling kind of icky. The story is narrated by Lily, a middle-class girl whose family is struggling after the depression. Lily befriends Eva, daughter of provocative modernist artist Evan Trentham, at primary school, and the two become best buds. Lily becomes seduced by the crazy world of the Trenthams and the other artists that live with them – their sexual freedom, disregard for rules, reckless drinking and drug use and of course, their seemingly unbounded creativity and artistic momentum.
The commune is idealistic and appears to function well initially, but soon begins to decay and collapse. This is where Bitto excels. She builds tension exceedingly well, and slowly reveals the consequences of a lifestyle of such abandon, particularly the way it affects the children, who are not only thoroughly neglected but also treated in increasingly inappropriate ways. Since the story is narrated an adult Lily, it’s awful to see how the effects of the childhood years reverberate irreparably through the children’s lives as they grow up.
The whole story is constructed through teenage Lily’s diaries, which I somtimes found mildly clichéd. Even though the journal’s content was filtered through the eyes of a grown woman (adult Lily), some of the insights of teenage Lily seemed too complex. The good thing about this is, it totally means you’re left wondering how reliable she is as a narrator: was life at the Trenthams’ really that bad, or does it only appear so because Lily has projected all her own feelings of insecurity and outsiderness onto the whole ordeal?
I remember when Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was first released The Guardian described it as having ‘the flaws of a good first novel’. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but maybe I do with The Strays: even though the plot and ways in which Bitto evoked certain feelings are faultless, I felt at times that the writing style was slightly overwritten – not in the sense it was flowery or too descriptive but rather in the sense it didn’t feel relaxed, or like Bitto had found her own voice (or been able to funnel Lily’s voice through her own) or something. That is, the writing felt a little a strained or laboured during the first half of the book – like there were too many words, like it was trying to sound too profound to the point where I stumbled over sentences occasionally. By the end of the novel this wasn’t the case; Bitto really convincingly got into the swing of it. Because of this I think her future novels are only going to get better and better.