In a bid to #ReadTheWorld, this month Babbling Book Club stopped in Australia to read The Strays, a family saga, written by Emily Bitto.
From the back cover:
On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live at their home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, bohemian lifestyle and longs to truly be a part of the family.
But as the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect their art. Yet it’s not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism. Almost 30 years later, Lily contemplates the ordinary path her own life took, how she has played it safe, but does freedom come at a cost?
Brought together once more, this is a story of the impact of loss, devotion and obsession, and the demise of one family.
The Strays is a family saga set in 1930’s Australia; Lily receives and invitation to an exhibition from an old friend, Eva, and this sparks Lily to reminisce about her childhood, and growing up with the Trentham family.
What’s interesting about this book is, like when I read ‘Woman No. 17’, I can’t pinpoint exact what it is that made me enjoy this book so much. It’s not a mystery/thriller read so there was no tension building to a grand reveal or any of the tropes I usually look for when reading, I just really enjoying reading about Lily’s time with the Trentham family. Lily is an only child and longed for a sibling, she isn’t mistreated at home but still prefers Eva’s family to her own. Lily’s family are working class; her father would “rather stay home and read a book than do all that socialising.” But the Trentham family are enigmatic to Lily, liberal, hands-off parents who host big social gatherings and invite artists to live in their home.
Lily feels a deep bond with Eva, and its borderline obsession, not just to Eva, but to the whole family, the desire to fit in and be accepted. Throughout this read, there was a dark undercurrent, as the cracks in this perfect family began to form, you were just waiting for them to implode. And when the family did implode, it wasn’t written to shock but just the continuation of Lily telling her story and that worked for me. What can I say, I just really, really liked “spying” on this family – Helena and Evan, happy to smoke “reefer” with their kids beside them, have no qualms about their friends posing nude for a painting with their children walking in and out of the room. All the characters in this novel are flawed, and intense in their actions and this made for an absorbing read.
There were such strong themes of devotion, obsession, jealousy and betrayal throughout this novel and that gave it an overall dark atmosphere, and I was just compelled to read on; it was also an exploration of female friendships and belonging. The Strays because Lily is a stray, lured by the excitement of the Trentham family; The Strays because Helena and Evan welcome any and every one into their home; The Strays because their three daughters are practically raising themselves; The Strays because are we not all hoping to belong?