Here is how I prepare for holidays – I reserve books. Books others have returned to the library, books recommended, ones I’ve shelved, read reviews about, seen clogging up the trolleys, books I’ve ignored in the pursuit of my own creative endeavours.
For the Melbourne Cup holiday I reserved The Strays by Emily Bitto. I started reading before the holiday officially started. What? You are shocked. There are no rules against pre-reading. I had just finished the latest draft of my manuscript prior to sending it off for what, I hope, will be its final assessment. My head was clear, my husband in Venice, the parish reports sorted and with Melbourne Cup falling on a Tuesday, I had no Welsh lessons to prepare for.
Some serious ‘me’ time was called for.
The Strays topped my reservation list for a number of reasons.
- It is the author, Emily Bitto’s, debut novel. I have an interst in debut writers.
- It is the first novel published by the newly established independant publishing house Affirm Press. Ditto, an interst in Melbourne publishers.
- Bitto had spoken at one of Boroondara libraries’ emerging author talks and I’d been sorry to miss the event.
- A colleague told me the story stayed with her long after she’d turned its final pages.
The Strays centres around the, fictitious, Trentham family who are at the forefront the 1930’s Melbourne modern art movement. Into their seemingly carefree lives comes Lily, a lonely only child from a conservative middle class family. As Lily’s friendship with the Trentham’s second daughter, Eva, unfolds from early primary school and into adolescence she is a witness to the loyalties, conflicts and inner contradictions of this carelessly neglectful family and the group artists they support. Despite being on the edge of the group, Lily finds herself drawn into the household’s divisions the ultimate the cost of which are borne by the Trentham’s younger daughters.
This is a literary novel. From its opening page, the reader is treated to some stunning prose.
I remember that day, after it all fell apart, when Eva came to me through the misty garden so that her red coat bled into view from white to pale rose to scarlet…
Bitto’s portrait of the Melbourne modern art movement is vivid, her historical detail authentic and engaging, the final unfolding of events, shocking, though well foreshadowed. At times, I felt the friendship between Lily and Eva was subsumed by the vibrant communtiy In which they lived – the ‘first chaste marriage’ between them only sketchily drawn. In retrospect, I think this was deliberate. Lily is as much infatuated by the enigmatic Tentham’s as she is by their daughter Eva. As a non-daughter or, perhaps due to of her inherent conservatism, she escapes the worst of the story’s consequences. Yet her life is driven by the rifts they caused. The novel is not without hope, however. We see it in Lily’s hindsight reflections, her journey towards reconciliation and in the relationship she has with her daughter. Her life decisions are not happily-ever-after but somehow appropriate. They are bound to resonate with all who have yearned for a more than ordinary life.