From the very first page, I was attracted to The Strays, and like the main character, Lily, I was mesmerised by the events that unfolded, drawn back over and over again to the Trentham’s house, to the vibrant chaotic lives of the people that lived there. There is a seductive quality to the writing that compelled me to keep reading.
The Strays tells the story of Evan Trentham, a famous 1930s modernist painter, his wife, Helena, who comes from a wealthy Melbourne family, and the inner workings of life inside their home. Evan and Helena open their home to other like-minded artists, creating an artists’ community. This gathering offers a rich environment of stimulating creative ideas and the expansion of new concepts, however, it also has a dark underbelly of debaucherous parties with lots of booze, cigarettes and ‘reefers’. The lack of a stable, nurturing environment for the three Trentham daughters, Beatrice, Eva and Heloise leads to tragic consequences for the entire family.
The Strays is told through the character of Lily, who as a young girl first meets Eva at school. Lily is mesmerised by the Trentham family, by the bold art that she does not fully understand, by their huge ramshackle house and expansive gardens, and by the glamorous but aloof Helena. Over the years Lily is drawn into the Trentham family fold and witnesses the spirited and often wild artists’ parties, and attends exhibition openings.
“If my mother had seen any one of the familiar tableau of the Trentham circle she would have spun me around and marched me straight back to the car. These were my secrets, the false bottom of my suitcase where the documents of my true allegiance were hidden. Maria as odalisque on the green chaise, being sketched by Jerome, who was still only learning the human figure. Evan in the late sun by the bath-fire, splashes of sienna on his chin, on his skull, between the kite-bones of his pelvis. Jerome and Ugo smoking reefer over a plate of Ugo’s pierogies, swapping the joint for a pickled cucumber. Helena in her kimono at midday, flirting with Ugo at the vegetable patch as he pulled up carrots.”
Evan and Helena are erratic, focused on artistic success and accolades, fame and money – despite claiming to reject capitalism ideals they actually live their life due to the capitalist successes of Helena’s family – at the detriment of their children, whom they neglect terribly. Lily is blinded by her infatuation with the Trentham’s exotic art-infused life and as such she brushes aside the fact that Eva and her sisters often goes without cooked meals, are left to scrounge for bread and jam in the kitchen, receive no comfort from their mother and are emotionally starved for attention. Much of this is a result of Helena carring an underlying resentment over her decision to have children at the cost of her own artistic career.
Lily covets the excitement and glamour of her friend Eva’s life. An only child, she struggles to understand family dynamics between siblings and desperately wants to be accepted by the Trentham family while rejecting her own parents, categorising them as dull and boring.
“I shifted in bed, conscious of the importance of other people lying asleep in the same house, and in some fundamental way, of having surpassed my own parents.”
Lily’s insecurities and desire for acceptance lead her to make a decision that haunts her for decades to come. Out of spite and anger, after being rejected by mother-figure Helena, Lily hides that she knew 15-year old Eva was running away with her 24-year old lover-painter, Jerome.
Even into adulthood and middle age, Lily is unable to accept her own flaws and how her actions contributed to the pain and suffering of her best friend, and that of Beatrice and Heloise. Lily attends a retrospective exhibition for Evan Trentham and reunites briefly with Eva, Beatrice and Helena. Aged in her sixties and still holding on to her anger and resentment, like a long, slow burning flame, Lily announces that she is contemplating writing a memoir about her experiences in the Trentham household. She is unwilling to reconcile her part in the trauma that occurred so long ago. The memoir stands as a subversive act of retribution for being rejected, for being on the outside and never being needed as she so desperately wanted all those years ago.
It is through the reading of a note, stolen long ago, that Lily is finally able to diffuse the anger that has simmered for so long. At last she realises that Helena was a mother figure for her and that in her own aloof way Helena did accept Lily as a part of the Trentham family circle.
Lily is a self-indulgent character and although she records the events that occur in the Trentham household, she is very fixated on herself and her own needs. I found her to be both likeable and unlikeable. The young child-Lily displays a sense of selfishness that is common among children, but when that self-absorption continues into adulthood, I found her to be distasteful. This complexity, in making Lily at once likable and unlikable displays Emily Bitto’s talent in keeping her characters real – Lily is flawed, as are the Trentham family members. But beyond that, this is a story about the bonds of friendship between girlfriends, how those bonds change, twist and strain, snap back or break. There are heartfelt tender moments amidst the chaos and frenzy of the artists community, which serve to ground and anchor the story.
The Strays and its characters are memorable, and I found them lingering in my mind, found myself contemplating them and their motives for days after I read the last page. It is this quality, that for me, makes The Strays such a great book.
The Strays by Emily Bitto (Affirm Publishing 2014)