Thursday, May 4, 2017

The strays, by Emily Bitto

When Lily enters a new school when she is eight, she meets Eva and is immediately drawn to her.  Eva is the middle of three sisters, two years apart.  Bea is the elder and Heloise is just beginning school.  Lily’s family lives a traditional middle-class life in a small semi-detached home.  They have recently downsized as it is 1930 and the Depression is in full swing in Melbourne, Australia where the novel is set.  Eva’s family, however, lives in the huge old house surrounded by wildly overgrown gardens that her mother, Helena, inherited.  Her father, Evan, is an aspiring modern painter and larger than life figure.  His best friend, Patrick, lives there with them and a year or so later marries Vera.  As Lily is drawn into their bohemian lifestyle, and several other artists begin to share the house as well, she leaves her own staid family far behind, especially after her father has a serious work accident and needs to make a long recovery.  Then she moves in as well.  It is an enchanted time when the girls are allowed enormous freedom, mostly because the adults can’t be bothered too much with looking out for them or even making sure they are fed regularly.  This large cast of “strays” collect around the main figure of Evan, discussing art and life while drinking long into the night.  Inevitably, infidelities occur, and as the three girls mature into young teenagers, even more inappropriate behavior takes place.  When Eva and Heloise, both in love with the same young artist, run away with him, scandal ensues.  As the book opens, it is decades later and Lily revisits the events of those years when Eva reappears from New York to attend a retrospective of her 80-year-old father’s work.  Beautifully written debut novel and winner of the 2015 Stella Prize, an Australian award for women's writing.  240 pp.

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