It comes as no surprise that Emily Bitto’s haunting debut, The Strays, is on the shortlist for this year’s Stella Prize. Bitto’s well-constructed novel, primarily set in 1930s Melbourne, conveys vividly the lives of bohemians, the ties of family, sibling rivalry, and female friendship.
The novel is narrated, in 1985, by a middle-aged woman named Lily, who reflects on her childhood spent in the household of Evan Trentham, an avant-garde Modernist painter. Evan is the father of Lily’s childhood best friend, Eva. He and his wife, Helena, live with their three daughters in suburban Melbourne, in a large house on impressive land with a well-tended garden. In the midst of the Depression and against what they perceive to be the stiflingly bourgeois art establishment, the Trenthams give their patronage to budding young Modernists. The household soon turns into a commune of artists, heady with parties, affairs, flowing drink, banned books and, of course, irresponsible parenting. The three Trentham girls are often shushed or told to ‘buzz off’ by their mother, Helena, and dismissed as ‘progeny’ to their faces by Evan, their father.
Inextricably linked to perceptions about talent and genius is the common belief that great creatives are badly suited to domestic felicity, that above all else a true artist is selfishly wedded to his or her work. Tolstoy, in an 1863 diary entry, lamented, ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.’ Jean Rhys, who only came to know her daughter in adulthood, was described by her editor Diana Athill as being ‘no better at motherhood than she was at filling hot-water bottles’, which is to say, totally inept. Manic and volatile, creatives are supposed to make notoriously bad parents.
This perhaps excuses Evan Trentham’s laissez-faire yet warm attitude towards his daughters, but doesn’t let his wife off the hook so easily. Helena Trentham is no Modernist star herself, but an amateur who paints miniatures and expresses no more than a moderate interest in collaborating with her husband on his work. Her real interests are gardening, drinking, and socialising. It is Helena who primarily draws in other artists, knits their social circle tight. Despite her disingenuousness, Helena has a lasting impact upon Lily, who even in middle age identifies the woman as ‘the mother figure that I have fought against my whole life’. With or without excuses, ultimately both the Trentham parents’ choices and inaction render them largely culpable for the dark misfortunes that befall their daughters. The book’s narrative structure – told retrospectively, with the hindsight of a much older woman – calls into question the adage that time heals all wounds.
Bitto’s commune, termed the Melbourne Modern Art Group, is clearly based on the real-life Heide Circle, which was established by John and Sunday Reed in the mid-1930s. Part II of Bitto’s novel is entitled, in homage, ‘The Circle’. The Reeds, like the Trenthams, lived on a property in suburban Melbourne, where over time pre-eminent artists like Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Danila Vassilieff would work. In a mid-1940s photograph, Sunday Reed stands by the front door of Heide in a garden that is as lush and wild as Helena Trentham’s. The criticism that the fictional Melbourne Modern Art Group encounters (their art is described as ‘terrible and degenerate’ in one newspaper article) parallels the prevailing anti-Modernist sentiment in Australia during the interwar period.
Despite its specific historical context, The Strays is strikingly imaginative. Bitto examines characters whose lives are usually seen as peripheral to the grand narratives of great artists: the relatives and friends of celebrated individuals; colleagues who never become successful. Her prose is often figurative – effortlessly so, it seems, and never overdone. Many of her sentences are so remarkable they demand rereading, from simple gems like ‘the beams of headlights painted the side of the house’, to the more visceral:
I wonder if Evan and Helena ever thought of themselves as the source from which their own children would run in time, the blood whose welling-up their daughters would try to staunch with the tourniquet of friends, lovers and children.
Much of the novel is told from Lily’s perspective in youth, and astutely describes the minutiae of childhood: burrowing oneself into a mother’s dress, sliding backwards down a staircase banister, the surreptitious pilfering of contraband, the unembarrassed ease of making friends.
One of the goals of the Stella Prize is to celebrate Australian women’s writing. The Strays, a deftly plotted, carefully crafted narrative about art, trauma and female friendship, wouldn’t be badly placed to take home the top gong.
by Emily Bitto
Affirm Press, 2014