So incredibly, since I wrote not one but two reviews about the University of Canberra’s Book of the Year, I have found myself enrolled there as a student. As it’s my first (and likely only) year of study there, I was eligible for a free copy of 2016’s Book of the Year: “The Strays” by Emily Bitto. On my orientation day, I skipped my way over the the Co-op, flashed my shiny new student card and brought my brand new copy home in delight.
“The Strays” is an Australian book set in the rather conservative 1930s. The story is narrated by Lily, an only child from a lower middle-class family who meets Eva, the middle child of renowned painter Evan Trentham and his wealthy wife Helena. Enamoured by the Trentham family, their wild parties and their ever-growing brood of adopted artists, Lily spends more and more time at their big house. However, eventually the hedonistic experiment starts to unravel and Lily’s loyalties are put to the test.
I really wanted to love this book. It was set in a really interesting time in Australia’s history, between wars, and focuses on Australia’s blossoming art scene. It’s written beautifully and Bitto does a great job of characterisation and atmosphere. It actually reminded me a lot of “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood, with the same dark undertone, the use of art as a metaphor and the intensity of female relationships. It’s engaging and it’s immersive but there just seemed to be something about “The Strays” that made the difference between it being a good book and a great book.
Maybe it’s that I’ve read a few novels lately, such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” that use allusion to harm or abuse as a plot device. As though the whole book is a lead up to some single sinister detail, appealing to the voyeur in us to keep turning pages until we find out what the horrible thing is.
Either way, if you like Australian fiction, books about women or art history, this one is worth a read.