Saturday, 14 November 2015

The strays by Emily Bitto

After a lovely tour of a gorgeous new home we settled down to discuss this month’s read of the debut and award winning novel by Australian author, Emily Bitto,  entitled The strays. 

Discussion began with our opinions of the book. The fairly unanimous opinion was that everyone enjoyed the read. The style of writing and turn of phrase was applauded. However, one or two members thought it was not up to the standard of an award. A couple of us felt it was a ‘little flat’. Too many things were not fully explained.  For instance, why did Lily explore the art scene in later life. (Afterwards I thought it was obvious – Lily associated art with glamour, intelligence and excitement.)

The novel is loosely based on the Bohemian lifestyle of John and Sunday Reed at Heide (a former dairy farm on the outskirts of Melbourne), in the 1930s. The strays novel begins in the thirties.  Sidney Nolan could be the model for Jerome?  Heide is now the Museum of Modern Art of Australia and is a beautiful place to visit.

One of the problems with this book was the implausibility of some of the characters. Lily’s parents were particularly hard to fathom or believe even for the times. They seemed to have a sense of relief that their daughter was not their responsibility. They were very conservative so it was surprising that they could allow their only daughter to live with an artist and his family. We discussed Lily and her feeling of being an outsider. Members of the group could relate to that feeling. One member related her experience of meeting people who she thought were extremely wealthy. They had intelligent  conversation and lots of house guests, and to her it was exciting to be in their company. This was very similar to Lily’s experience with the Trentham family. Lily was only an observer living with these people.  This becomes even more obvious at the end of the book when she was talking to Bea and the others about writing a memoir.

Living with the Trenthams was a life of possibility for Lily.  The house and the huge meals all seemed effortless so different from her lonely boring life with her parents.

One member enjoyed the book but had reservations.   It reminded her of hippie life in Byron Bay where life was full of strays.  Another member was wondering what it was really about – angst of an artistic life or a clash between sensible suburbia and bohemian life.

Another member was very enthusiastic about this book – it reminded her of ‘Brideshead revisited’ and also ‘Atonement’.  She thought it was about family and desire and connection to people, parental responsibility and friendship between girls. One of the good facets of the novel was the way the author describes the cultural isolation (in art terms especially) of Melbourne at the time. The family were living in a bubble.

The Prologue is very important. Here the author talks about the:
heart’s magnetic field …the body’s silent communications with other bodies are unmapped and mysterious …Who knows, what we call instant attraction may be as random as the momentary synchrony of two hearts’ magnetic pulses.
Does this explain Eva and Lily’s friendship, or Lily’s attraction to the whole Trentham family?

Eva’s mother is another interesting character – she is not a sympathetic character and hopeless as a parent. Evan is a bad father. The dinner party conversations (with the extra members of the ‘family’) and their behavior shows how dysfunctional the family really is. No-one is interested in the children.
Bitto explains the relationships between the family members really well and how they are all under stress, and not healthy.

We discussed the girls' relationships – Lily and Bea, the sad and unloved Heloise, and Lily herself –and Jerome, the ‘devil’ in the ‘mix’?  These relationships reminded one reader of a relationship between Jack Thompson and 2 sisters. Apparently there is also an instance of the poet Shelley ‘having’ two young women. According to the Oxford Handbook online Shelley was possibly one of the ‘pro-feminist of the male writers’ of the time. 

Jerome is totally unremorseful, a good artist who was expected to make money. Why did society allow him to get away with ‘taking’ young girls? Why did the family not object sooner? Even if Lily had told would the family have acted sooner? These questions cannot be answered.

The whole episode of Jerome absconding with the girls reminded us of incidents concerning supposed obscene art and photographs of children by Bill Henson which were censored in 2008 by the Labor government. (The exhibition was at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Paddington.) Interestingly, none of us thought that Jerome kidnapped Eva and Heloise, but they presumably went of their own volition. Jerome was 24 and the girls were 15 and 13. This sort of behavior happens. Evan and Helena wanted to keep the community intact and wanted to believe that their life was possible longterm. (It didn’t work for the Reeds for very long either.)

Central to the community idea is that this lifestyle upsets lives – relationships happen which are not meant to happen – Jerome and the girls, especially Heloise. I suppose this is reinforced by Lily’s first marriage to her romantic artist husband which didn’t succeed.  Life was better with her more boring second partner, an economist.

The life of the Trenthams is not a good model for society we decided. It is good to have challenging people around but you had better lock up your daughters. So is the meaning of this book about coming to terms with the past? Lily’s parents’ behavior is inexplicable. The three Trentham daughters lacked boundaries which ruined their lives ultimately.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great write up of what was a really excellent discussion in which we, as you show, teased out a lot of ideas. I'm one of those who had mixed feelings when I finished. I wondered exactly what it was about - I felt that it was about a lot of things but couldn't work out what really drove it. Through comments on my own blog, and thinking later about my own point re the import of the opening sentences, I think it probably is largely about female friendships, their power and their role. I didn't feel so concerned about Lily's parents' behaviour. It was a little odd, but I felt Bitto explained it in the context of the times (the Depression), what happened (the father's accident), and the mother's sense of wanting something better for her daughter and seeing the Trenthams (initially in particular) as "society".

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