The Strays by Emily Bitto

straysA bohemian existence that challenges the social norms of pre-war Melbourne society is given innocent perspective by the childhood friendship of Eva Trentham and Lily as they live an often feral but intellectually stimulating existence in a nascent artistic commune
In this boot camp for developing talent Evan Trentham is the Simon Cowell of his day; a showman whose unrestrained talent pushes the boundaries of acceptable art. His passion and combustible personality are able to influence the pace of change not only in the largely insular Melbourne art world but in the daily lives of his immediate and extended artistic family.

His energies are balanced by his wife Helena, whose breeding and connections are in direct contrast to his earthier upbringing. Opposites clearly attract and in many ways this is the chemistry than binds not only the relationship between Eva and Lily but also the contrasting personalities brought together in the extended Trentham household by the commonality of art.

The social, political and economic issues of the day are physically remote but spiritually everywhere as the author’s narrative brush strokes incorporate a depth of colour and sensitivity probably at odds with the lead characters direct and visually intrusive style of painting.

Eva and her younger sister Heloise become the victims of a less socially responsible age as exposure to an anarchic approach to child rearing and human relationships impacts dramatically on their transition into adulthood.

Lily is the eyes and ears of the story, the outsider gazing initially in disbelief and then in joyous acceptance of this alternative existence. She is though, at all times, the questioning conservative to Eva’s freewheeling liberal who ultimately feels betrayed as the spontaneity of her youth dissipates into a vacuum of personal loss and an anti-climactic acknowledgement that the promise of youth has been supplanted by conformity and blandness

Time-scales shift from the 1930’s to a more contemporary setting as the revelations of damaged lives are laid bare by the old friends reflections on their past and the reverberations of what isn’t said ring louder than the memories they feel able to talk about.

The Strays by Emily Bitto (Published by Legend Press. Price £8.99)

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