The Strays is an impressively ambitious debut novel by Emily Bitto that has been highly regarded in Australia, and for good reason. Bitto has authored an incredibly human book that tackles various themes head-on. The intensity of friendship between young girls is explored through the relationship of the narrator, Lily, and her best friend Eva, daughter of unconventional artist Evan Trentham.
Eva has the life Lily did know she desired until she visits the Trentham household and becomes enraptured with their bohemian way of life that is so different from her own. She longs to be free to roam the utopian garden as Eva does with her two sisters. For a time, she must content herself observing the many artistic inhabitants of the house, Evan’s ‘Strays’, from afar. It is a life that Eva leads, and Lily covets.
When Lily is invited to move into the Trentham household, this life becomes a reality for her, as she becomes formally admitted into Eva’s world. Bitto paints a beautiful picture of adolescent female friendship and complexities that accompany this; the pride, love and envy that young girls come to feel for each other as they navigate the world with one another.
As the narrative progresses, so does the intensity of the themes explored, for in time Lily comes to realise that it is Evan’s daughters who will pay the price for his lifestyle. The final chapters of the novel explore particularly dark and challenging themes that have the potential to be used clumsily, or as a cheap plot device. Bitto sculpts this section of the narrative particularly subtly, and with deep sensitivity.
Though the storyline may seem a familiar one, the novel’s greatest success comes from creating characters who are both deeply flawed and sympathetic. The framing of the narrative by an older Lily reflecting on her time with the Trentham’s gives another layer of depth to Lily and the Trentham family. Lily is an empathetic narrator in her presentation of well-rounded characters, who while may not always be likeable, are always to some extent understandable.
The novel provides no easy answers; the reader grows up alongside Lily and the Trentham sisters, before observing the divergent paths the four girls take as adults. We are left to draw our own conclusions. The Strays is an extremely readable novel that navigates the complex themes of friendship, sisterhood, parenthood, and belonging, with great maturity and care.