TEXT review

Speak, memory


review by Ruby Todd


Emily Bitto
The Strays
Affirm Press, South Melbourne 2014
ISBN 9781922213211
Pb 290pp AUD24.99


In LP Hartley’s classic coming-of-age novel The Go-Between, famous for its evocation of the past as a foreign country, narrator Leo comes to terms with long-buried memories of his loss of innocence half a century ago. He recalls one fateful summer in 1900, when at twelve years old he went to stay with a school friend at his family’s Norfolk mansion, Brandham Hall, to become enraptured by the lively idyll of life at the Hall, the freedom of its abundant park, and its cast of characters. Yet this pastoral scene is, from the outset, shadowed by the knowledge that it will not last, and we read on to witness Leo’s implication in a web of adult attachments that will haunt the rest of his life. As an adult, from a critical distance of fifty years, Leo imagines telling his younger self: ‘You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched’ (Hartley 2000: 17).

I found myself, at times, recalling the tone and preoccupations of Hartley’s wonderful book while reading Emily Bitto’s debut novel. While The Strays is in many ways a vastly different tale, like The Go-Between it converges to powerful effect around the monumental impact that certain singular events in childhood can exert on our future lives and selves, and testifies to the strange capacity of the past, through memory, to animate the present. Like The Go Between, Bitto’s elegant novel is retrospectively framed, and narrated by a mature first-person protagonist who remains haunted by events that took place decades ago in youth. In the novel’s movement, these long-ago events are at last recalled, with more immediacy and intensity than the present can summon, while the reader is drawn on toward a dark reckoning as finally, past and present converge.

Bridging the two very different historical periods of 1980s and post-Depression 1930s Melbourne, The Strays opens with aged Art History lecturer Lily recalling the years of her childhood and adolescence in 1930s Melbourne, spent within the ferocious embrace of her friendship with Eva Trentham. Lily is immediately captivated by Eva’s charismatic and unpredictable parents, who are so unlike her own – the mercurial Evan, a celebrated yet controversial painter of surreal, Gothic scenes channelling Bosch in the Australian landscape, and the glamorous yet aloof Helena. An only child of doting but conventional parents, Lily becomes increasingly integrated into the radically different world of the Trentham family, a world of art, impromptu parties, intellectual passion and conspiracy. All is staged daily in their sprawling ancestral home and garden in Bulleen, a real yet mythical place with an obvious resemblance to Heide, where adult Lily ‘still wander(s) in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums’ (15). Enthralled by the glamour and freedom of this world, Lily longs to truly belong in it, and increasingly looks upon the values and aspirations represented by her parents as stifling and alien. With the intensity of an imposter, ‘a cuckoo in the nest’, Lily at once idealises the Trentham clan, and, in her self-conscious distance from them, observes and catalogues their activities in her journals (141). In doing so, she not only preserves the triumphs, intimacies and devastations of a vibrant family she loves, but the private daily reality underlying a pivotal moment in Australian modern art and cultural politics.

Evan and Helena live by their ideals, cultivating around them a community of like-minded artists by inviting them into their family and home, to share the ‘luxury of carefree detachment’ offered by Helena’s inheritance (151). These “strays” of the title, all of them in different ways displaced from the conservative society around them, find in the Trentham home a freedom from the constraints that work and rented lodgings place upon their artistic freedom. Together, they convert stables into a shared studio, and form the Melbourne Modern Art Group, a movement reminiscent of the Angry Penguins, intent on challenging realist tradition and invigorating the landscape of Australian art by drawing from Modernist innovations in Europe within a uniquely Australian context. In this unstructured atmosphere, Eva and her sisters Bea and Heloise, and Lily among them, are an afterthought, left much to their own devices and constantly privy to the ongoings of an adult world, forming ‘their own small democracy’ (82).

When Lily goes to stay with the Trenthams for the summer at fourteen, she witnesses in this community something close to a utopia of excitement and vision. Finally, as the tenuous balance of the Trentham home descends into chaos, Lily witnesses the downfall of Evan and Helena’s bohemian dream, and learns the cost of ideals in a life lived for art – a cost that may continue to incur in time, to be paid by those least responsible for it. The meditative recollection that constitutes The Strays, at once tender and painful, is the measure of Lily’s own reckoning with this cost, and with the tragic ironies of its consequences for Eva and her sisters, and for herself. Lily’s narrative illustrates the sadistic potential of artistic creation, when such creation, albeit unintentionally, is predicated on the sacrifice and sublimation of real people – and questions the cult of the male artistic subject whose work thematises the feminine. Moreover, it questions the mechanisms of the wider cultural system through which artists and their oeuvres are mythologised – to the extent that the real historical forces and people that inspired an artwork are ultimately totalised by it, reduced in art history and popular imagination to just another ‘interpretive lens’ by which to approach that artwork (277).

Bitto has created an elegantly formed, resonant novel, melding vivid images, an ear for dialogue, and a well-measured narrative pace with the current of humour that always runs through human tragedy. With delicacy and restraint, The Strays explores rich terrain – the violence and redemption of art, the ever-presence of personal history, and the interrogation of childhood selves by adult selves in search of understanding and absolution. Perhaps more than anything, Lily’s narrative attests to the powers of memory to vividly summon past experiences and past selves, and to offer repeat encounter with the forces that have shaped our present lives and selves. Being able, through memory, to revisit the foreign country of the past, the country in which she too was scorched, is a process by which Lily, like Leo, becomes more answerable to herself and to her future.


Works cited

Hartley, LP 2000 [1953] The Go-Between, Penguin Classics, London return to text



Ruby Todd is a PhD candidate in Creative and Critical Writing at Deakin University, Melbourne, where she is completing her second novel and researching the operations of absence in literary language and the authorial impulse.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste