Reading the Stella Prize shortlist – The Strays by Emily Bitto


Had I not been reading the Stella Prize shortlist, I would have picked up The Strays by Emily Bitto regardless. A few people had recommended it and it’s one of those books that kept popping up on my radar. So perhaps I went in with high expectations…

It’s the story of school girl Lily, who meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. The Trenthams, in a bid to escape the conservatism of 1930s Australia, live with other artists in their rambling family home. Lily spends an increasing amount of time at the Trentham home, infatuated by their bohemian lifestyle. It’s not until years later (and after a number of tragic events), that Lily reflects on the true cost of the artists’ lifestyles.

Although fictional, The Strays borrows much of its story from that of the Heide Museum of Modern Art, which began life in 1934 as the home of Melbourne couple John and Sunday Reed. For those readers unfamiliar with Heide, The Strays will no doubt be an exciting and fresh read. However, I do know the Heide story and The Strays (like Heide) is set in my neck of the woods, meaning I was extra-critical (perhaps unfairly) of small details and their accuracy.

Some niggles: many of Bitto’s analogies and creative elements were trying too hard and as a result, bits and pieces stuck out rather than flowed. For example –

“The night that followed was a slip down the rabbit hole. Summer was taking up its place like a chestnut seller setting up his stall, lighting the coals and letting the scented smoke drift down the street before he begins to call out to passers-by.”

There’s a lot going on in these two sentences and I was distracted by the reference to summer with chestnuts (roasting chestnuts brings to mind winter for me…) – are the coals, the street and the call to passers-by wasted words…? I can live with the odd flowery sentence but this is one of numerous examples.

Secondly, I didn’t get a sense of time passing – how old were the girls? You never quite knew. There were occasional references but not enough for me to fix on as I read. Perhaps Bitto did this deliberately, in order to weave the notion of the the Trenthams’ laissez-faire life throughout the story. Furthermore, I didn’t get a good sense of the book’s place in time. It was the 1930s and although there were references to the Depression (particularly in relation to Lily’s father and his employment), I needed more ‘stage design’ – show me the 1930s through small, well-researched details.

What worked? I enjoyed only-child-Lily’s observations of life in a large family and equally, the Trentham children’s attitudes toward their parents, their lifestyle and the other artists. Lily had the advantage of being able to observe from a safe distance and retreat to her own family if and when needed. The Trentham girls had no such option and the consequences of this form the bulk of the plot.

“I am an only child; it is my lot to be envious, even grasping, to long for the bonds that tie sisters together, the fearless, unthinking acceptance that we are social creatures, pack animals, that there is never, truly, the threat of being alone.”

Equally good was the portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, highlighting the dangers of being the mother who says “We’re more like best friends rather than mother and daughter.” Because we all know that teenage daughters don’t need another best friend but they do need a mother.

“I believe she envied her daughters their relationships with one another, just as I did. And so she brought three girls into the world and let them roam it without telling them to fill the pockets of their pinafores with bread and to leave a trail of crumbs that would lead them, in a crisis, home.”

3/5 I can see the appeal but the story lacked punch.

Will it win the Stella Prize? No. Ultimately, The Strays brought to mind Heide, Frances Whiting’s Walking on Trampolines and the nineties movie Sirens and therefore I’m not sure its point-of-difference is enough to win the Stella.

8 responses

  1. Outside of blogs, there’s little coverage of the Stella Prize over here – I wouldn’t have known the reference points of course but the excerpt of the flowering language would put me off anyway! I always think that kind of prose is incredibly difficult to pull off – and it doesn’t sound like this book managed it!

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  4. Incorrect! I was certain Foreign Soil was going to win the Stella, but I’m so glad it was this book, which I liked quite a bit more than you! But I don’t know much about the Heide circle so maybe that helped.

    • It was such a diverse field and I thought that Foreign Soil might steal the win. Next time you’re in Melbourne, I’ll take you to Heide – it’s stunning. And it has a brilliant cafe. And it’s a stone’s throw from my house.

      • I have been to Heide a few times when I lived In Melbourne but I’d love to meet up and visit again.

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  6. Elegant prose and insightful, but for me fails to evoke the era convincingly. In the 30s we caught the train at the railway station, not the train station, and how many people, even bohemians, ( especially young girls) used the f word then? Spoiled the book for me, as my images were of a more modern Melbourne much of the time

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