It is strange which events leave those deep scars we carry with us over a lifetime. When Heloise talked about that night, even years later, it was with a bitter seriousness, a complete inability to see events as they occurred to her as a seven-year-old. It became a foundation myth, a lasting symbol of the troubled nature of Heloise’s childhood, the real sufferings she endured, but also the way she experienced these sufferings, reliving them over and over until they wore away their own caged-animal paths within her.
Of all the characters in Emily Bitto’s The Strays, and there are a great many, all flawed and fully realised, Heloise is the most tragic and unknowable. She is the youngest child in the family narrator Lily lives with as a child, a family of three girls, mercurial artist Evan Trentham and glamorous wife Helena their benignly neglectful parents. They live on a large property, a secluded, sprawling space granted by virtue of Helena’s family money, on which the girls run wild. Gradually, Evan and Helena take in other painters, a small community of strays, but the balance in such a community cannot last and eventually it topples – all but destroying the family, scattering the strays to their fates.
I read this surprisingly quickly, Bitto has an easy style and a remarkable deft hand in her characterisation. The world she builds is rich and complex, the memoir style of narration gives us the closeness to the family from Lily as a youngster alongside the distance of time and tragedy from which Lily as an adult views it. Plenty has been said about Bitto’s portrayal of “the artist” but I was most interested in this as a story about women, the risks women take in seeking their freedom, from the svelte Helena who is openly accused of neglecting her daughters, to the artist Maria who upon leaving the enclave of the Trentham property and with infant in arms becomes unable to work, stricken with poverty. It attacks the myth of “having it all” while elevating the relationships of women, complicated as they are, and recognises the difficult decisions women face pursuing relationships, work, family.
The Strays, Emily Bitto: four and a half stars.
Read it for: a sweeping story of relationships, with art, with lovers, with friends and family, across a lifetime.