Emily Bitto’s The Strays is an intriguing look at that rare phenomenon, Bohemian life in 1930’s Melbourne. But more than that it is about a family with parents whose aim in life is to create a community dedicated to Art, and an artist father whose ambition in life is to burn with Pater’s ‘hard gem-like flame.’
For the benefit of non-Australian readers I should explain there was such a community in Melbourne from the mid 1930’s to the late 1970’s at the home of wealthy art lovers John and Sunday Reed. The Reeds bought an old farmhouse on fifteen acres on the banks of the Yarra at Bulleen (now a suburb of Melbourne) and renovated and expanded it so they could provide housing and studio space for serious artists. They were committed to Modernist painting and some of Australia’s most highly regarded artists were part of the community at one time: Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and Danila Vassilieff. The relations between the artists and their patrons were complex, and often sexual, frequently ending acrimoniously.
Emily Bitto’s book is no roman à clef although the Reed community is the obvious jumping-off point. Evan Trentham is a manically working artist and his wife Helena is devoted to supporting him. The children don’t fare too well in such an environment and while this book is about the artist’s life, in my view it is more about the inner lives of children and the fate of the unparented child.
We see this life from the viewpoint of Lily, a schoolgirl who becomes a close friend to Eva, the middle daughter of the Trentham family. Her poor working-class parents don’t object when she spends more and more time with her friend’s family, up to the point when she lives with them for months when her family is going through a crisis. The Trenthams have Helena’s inheritance to support their generosity, others, like Lily’s family, are still affected by the Depression.
The book starts with Lily in the 1980’s receiving an invitation from her friend Eva Trentham to a retrospective of the aged Evan Trentham’s work. Her relationship with Eva and her family has been the most intense of her life. She is fascinated, but scared to approach it again.
I feel a tenderness in my chest, and the past rushes in as a deluge I can no longer hold back: the house and garden, the smell of smoke that will always be the scent of things gone wrong…
But she cannot resist.
From Lily’s point of view there was an intense moment of recognition of a kindred soul when she met Eva on her first day at a new school. As she says,
…throughout my life I have felt an instinctive attraction to particular people, male and female, romantic and platonic…It was this way with Eva, although we were only eight years old.
It is less clear why Eva cleaves to Lily, but she does. Lily loves Eva’s self-possession. Perhaps Lily’s loyalty provides security for Eva. Lily spends more and more time with Eva and her sisters. When her father has a serious accident she goes to live with them. Helena Trentham, whom she adores, offers the casual generosity of the wealthy Bohemian, but does not do much parenting.
There were frequent, spontaneous parties at the Trentham house. When we were younger, we were sent to bed to lie on our narrow mattresses…listening to the voices floating up from the garden below…Some nights we climbed to our rooftop platform and peered down from the peaks. We tried to locate Evan by the sound of his voice, amplified by drunkenness and the presence of an audience.
Bea, the older girl, keeps her own steady course through this and Eva and Lily cleave together, but this lack of secure boundaries or care has most effect on Heloise, the youngest. There are several chilling incidents concerning her. She gets forgotten and locked out of the garden in the night, she is manhandled by playful drunks and shrieks in terror, it is discovered her teeth are rotting, because no one ever tells her to clean them, she causes a dramatic fire. Bitto frequently draws our attention to Heloise’s plight. For these were vulnerable girls unprotected in a quite male environment where the artists often were big drinkers willing to explore any mind-altering substances going. They were also prodigious workers absorbed in their own creative efforts. As Lily observes,
Then there was the work, which powered the mechanisms of the circle and determined the shape of days. To read the scathing critiques in the wake of the group exhibition, one would have harboured images of Dionysian excess, the artists draped around the garden in various states of intoxication and undress….I had never thought of what they did as work in the same way as what my father did was work. But it was work. Evan’s paintings were often six by nine feet, and involved the whole body in their making.
There was dedication to the work and an attempt at a group ethic, but it also came with monstrous egotism. Evan is depicted as completely narcissistic. At one point Eva has an angry exchange with him about her birthday when she always has to share the celebration with him. There is not much cake or celebration left over for her.
But is only when the seductive and manipulative Jerome Carroll joins the community and seems to be surpassing Evan in his artistic work that the fragile world rips apart. Lily is implicated in holding Eva’s secrets and this affects the life of Heloise as well. The bitter outcome that ensues has a tragic inevitability.
The book deserves its Stella Prize (Australia’s equivalent of the U.K. Orange Prize). As a first novel it is extraordinary. I look forward to reading Emily Bitto’s next work.