Emily Bitto, The Strays (Affirm Press 2014)
This is a novel about a fictional artist’s colony in Victoria in the 1930s. Though the colony bears some resemblance to the Heide group, and a couple of historical figures, notably Bert Evatt, are mentioned or make brief appearances, it would be a mistake to read it as a roman à clef. At least, I hope so – if not, Heide was quite a bit nastier than I’ve heard.
The narrator, Lily, looks back in middle age to her girlhood friendship with Eva, whose father, Evan Trentham, is a modernist painter and a towering figure in the Australian art scene, and to the years in which she became a virtual member of Eva’s family – one of a number of ‘strays’, of whom the others were young modernist artists. From a deeply conventional family herself, young Lily is fascinated by the bohemian life of the Trentham household: adults who are so engaged in their own pursuits that they leave children to fend for themselves, earnest talk, ‘reefer’ and opium seeds, erotic art, casual nudity, and the smells and sights of a group of working artists and their models.
Of course, all is not well in Bohemia. Eva and Lily, friends since they were eight, drift apart in their early teenage years in ways neither of them can acknowledge, and when calamity strikes the household, it brings the death of their intense intimacy as well.
The book is beautifully written. The characters are vividly realised: Evan the alpha male; Helena his wife and presiding goddess of the household; their three daughters – Bea the responsible eldest, bold Eva and deeply resentful Heloise; and the young adult members of the colony – including Jerome, the young artist who will eclipse his mentor and whose transgressions undo the community.
For all its manifest virtues, though, I couldn’t get excited about the book. It’s not that I was bored, and there are some wonderful things: there are moments when the intensely physical intertwining of young Lily and Eva comes brilliantly alive, so that the distance between them when they meet again as adults is devastating. But over all I couldn’t tell why any of it should matter to me, or actually why it mattered to the author. Interestingly, it’s as if the novel knows that concern needs to be addressed. In the over-long, loose-thread-tying section in which the main events of the novel are in the distant past, Lily tells Helena and Eva that she is thinking of writing a memoir about her days with the family. Helena asks the question that had been playing in my mind for 200 pages: why write it? The question leads in the short term to a tense exchange of blame and counter-blame. But later, Lily reflects (omitting spoilers):
The events of the Trenthams and their strays have long since been recorded in the pages of art history. … Always, … the artist himself was at the centre, with Helena, Eva, Heloise at the distant peripheries. They were cast as ‘events’ that accounted for the prevalence of particular themes, detailed in the same manner as the influence of the war on Jerome. Heloise’s life a footnote explaining Jerome’s brilliant work.
So the narrator’s motive for writing is clear – it’s a feminist redress of the dominant patriarchal narrative. And we can extrapolate that as the novelist’s motive as well. But any passion behind that motivation didn’t make it to the page, or at least didn’t communicate from the page to me. Perhaps the book’s beginnings as part of a PhD left a subliminal sense that it was being written for an examiner’s eye. Perhaps it’s that I read The Strays after the Biff Ward’s grimly real In My Mother’s Hands, and was unconvinced by Emily Bitto’s inventions. Or maybe I’ve finally reached the predicted old-man condition of not liking fiction much any more. Certainly my lukewarmness seems to be a minority response.
This is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.