The Strays is the debut novel by Emily Bitt0, which won the Stella Prize in 2015. This tells the story of best friends Lily and Eva growing up in Australia in the 1930’s. Eva’s father is a well know modernist artist who with his wife surround themselves with fellow artists in their large family home. Lily finds her way into the house of strays too and together they live in harmony until it all starts to crumble around them.
This novel had me hooked from the get go and I found myself staying up late just to finish it. I was completely entranced with the mystery of the story and the complex relationships between the characters. The story centres around the friendship between Eva and Lily, told from Lily’s perspective. From the beginning of the novel we are aware that their relationship has fractured and the rest of the novel puts the pieces together. The strength of this novel is in the honesty of the relationships between the characters. Bitto excels in recounting what close female (and male I’m sure also) friendships are like. The mountains of love you have for that person but the conflicting touches of jealously and envy. Loving your friend and wanting them to succeed but to not leave you behind. Telling each other everything in the world with no boundaries. The honesty in this relationship was part of what sucked me in to this story line.
The rest of the plot focuses on Eva’s parents and their group of stray artists, fighting the label of degenerates for daring to venture into the modern arts in a conservative society. Their bohemian relaxed ways are a crazy aphrodisiac and you find yourself swept up in their mayhem and allure as does Lily in the novel. This is a fascinating view into the artistic scene of the times. With unpredictable Evan, elusive Helena, affable Udo, the ever forgotten Heloise and all the rest there are so many interactions with ricocheting consequences. As the reader you watch as their idyllic lifestyle plummets into chaos, fracturing forever.
My only slight complaint with this novel was that I didn’t feel like there was enough. It was over too quickly, there wasn’t enough closure, enough insight into the many strings into this story. I wish I was left with more at the end, I was left feeling slightly puzzled. This however matches the realistic feel of the novel. Lily herself is trying to put all the pieces together in retrospect and just like real life you can’t always get the answers you need. Overall this was a fast-paced read that left me wanting more. The characters were rich and the plot line fascinating with just enough mystery. I give The Strays three artistic palettes for all the artists living in this fantasy world.