On Christmas Eve my partner and I left the city and flew to country Tasmania for a week of relaxation, restoration and calm. Christmas is a tricky time for me. I get nostalgic and emotional about the family who are no longer in my life and being surrounded by people can often make this worse. Last year we did an epic two Christmases across two states in a matter of days and it was incredibly difficult. So this year we decided very early on to do the complete opposite. After flying into Launceston and collecting a hire car, some quick stops along the way for supplies, we found ourselves in a cozy house in the secluded town of Deloraine, population 2250, in the north of Tasmania. An island that holds a special place for me, one that I’ve visited at least once a year for the last five years, Tasmania is the perfect place to retreat to. After a busy month of work leading up to the break, visiting family and all the planning that comes with Christmas, within moments of arriving in Deloraine my shoulders had dropped back to their rightful position, my head was clearing and everything felt right. All we had ahead of us for the next week was a garden to wander and a town to explore at our own pace. A week to make time for everything that had been pushed aside during the year: time with my partner, long, quiet walks and a chance to catch up on all those books I wish I’d had time to read, all those recommendations that were pushed to the side for one reason or another. All of the books I heavily carried in my suitcase were released in 2014 and this time away felt like a second chance to read the best books of the year. The first novel pulled from the stack was Emily Bitto’s The Strays.
The story begins with Eva making contact with Lily after a long absence, with an obviously bitter parting separating the two. We then are pulled back to their childhood where Lily becomes a de facto sibling in Eva’s family, joining the eldest sister Beatrice and youngest Heloise, in a rambunctious family run by the gregarious artist Evan Trentham and the vivacious if not a little intimidating Helena. The couple throw monstrous parties and regular dinners with fellow artists before soon deciding to extend their home to ‘the strays’ who have been working on a group exhibition with Evan. What follows is essentially a thriller: we know that these two best friends will unravel at some stage, but as they become more and more inseparable, we are drawn further and further into their world. This overarching darkness that pervades over the story of these teenage girls felt very reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides - the feeling of unease that crept under my skin, the unsettling behaviour of the adults and the endless questioning of character, particularly of those who first appear to be harmless.
Before the complication, anger and passion of the artists eventually spills over into the household, harming their professional reputations and then hurting each other, we are first drawn in by Lily, the narrator and outside eye of the house. She becomes the fourth sister of the family and her cautious naivety butts against her adoration for every member of the household. She is consumed by their worldliness and exoticism, in contrast to her rather ordinary parents who are desperately fighting against the Depression to stay afloat. After Lily’s father has an accident at work and the family struggles with medical bills and must move away, Lily is allowed to stay with the Trentham’s on a more permanent basis until the crisis blows over. It is around this time that the house becomes an artist commune and the dynamics begin to shift. Lily is particularly deft at recognising the pain this causes to the younger members of the family:
It was true; now, more than ever, the girls were left to their own devices, allowed to create their own small democracy in which law would always be decided by age or the ability to make the loudest protest, in which Beatrice was inevitably the ruler, Heloise was the rowdy proletariat, uprising and changing the course of a decision with her sheer vociferousness, and Eva was the silent majority, usually happy to keep the peace. If the addition of Ugo, of even one extra member of the household, had its effects, throwing still more off balance the already rudderless boat that was the Trenthams’ family life, imagine the extent of their freedom and neglect when another three individuals were added to the household. Two of these were Maria and Jerome, the new members of the Melbourne Modern Art Group. The other was myself.
Despite being set in “the days at the end of the Depression when wealth was less common than death”, Bitto avoids over-characterising the setting. This is particularly laudable as there so easily could have the temptation to make this story derivative of The Great Gatsby at times, but Bitto comes across as a calm, calculated writer, one who thinks through every possibility before releasing her words out into the open. Though The Strays does feel traditional and in some cases almost in the style of Austen as we follow an outsider looking in on class, privilege and entangled love, it still maintains a contemporary readability and understanding. I remember a colleague returning from a trip to Edinburgh when the Fringe Festival coincided with the declaration of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007. She spoke of a strange calm, despite the world seemingly crumbling around the artists taking part. These were people who lived their lives in financial uncertainty, and as such felt like this was just another day, one that they felt equipped to weather. Though the artists in The Strays are backed by privilege, they seem untouched by the financial turmoil that surrounds them. What they are unequipped to negotiate though is the political backlash towards their work that begins to unravel the group.
There is also some remarkable commentary on the misogyny of the art world. The men of the novel are lauded to a point of martyrdom, a judgement that will bring extraordinary pain to the younger females of the novel in due course. But Helena, the mother and keeper of the fortune that makes the house and it’s ability to accommodate ‘the strays’ possible, and Maria, are both artists in their own right, though their worth as artists is rarely discussed, particularly by the men. In contrast to the large, avant-garde works of Evan which often feature life-sized portrayals of intimacy, Helena’s smaller, subtler works are hidden throughout the house, but eventually Lily’s admiration of Helena allows them to find recognition. These miniature works are placed “where they were vulnerable to damage”, amongst the every day domestic haunts of the ledge above the kitchen sink, or “in the laundry next to a jar of powdered soap flakes”.
They were neglected, mishandled, exposed to the elements. But this did not lessen their impact. They contained the strength of weather within them. I could look at a corner of a cloudy sky in one of her canvases, and it was as if I was peering through a chink in a wall from a distance, with little revealed, but with three steps could put my eye up to the chink and see the whole panorama revealed. Helena’s images allowed you to see what was outside their compact frames, almost by the very fact of their occlusion. They invited the viewer to peer through the window of their canvas and watch the scene expand.
The Strays is an incredible debut novel. Every page feels tightly crafted without ever losing the raw emotion of its characters and the suspense is sustained throughout without feeling overwrought or implausible. Bitto’s love and care for her characters shines through and she is remarkably restrained in her lack of judgement, letting the reader see the actions and subsequent consequences clearly for themselves. This is a beautiful, haunting story, from an author that shows incredible promise.
As Helena and Maria wandered through the gardens of the property, drinking five o’clock gin and tonics and talking about their lives outside of the gregarious men that dominate the story, I paused my reading and went to look after the garden of the house we were staying in over Christmas. I somehow innately remembered to water either just as the sun is rising or just as it’s about to set, so the plants get the most of the reviving moisture. As the sun flickered playfully through the spray of the hose, I remembered following my parents around the garden on warm evenings, trailing after them with endless chatter as they tended to the garden not built to withstand scorching South Australian summers. I would giggle as the dog would run through the jet-stream, hoping to cool that dense, black fur at the end of a long day of sweltering under the shade of the back verandah.
Recently I went home to Adelaide for my Mum’s sixtieth birthday and used the opportunity to revisit my childhood home for the first time in almost twenty years. I’ve increasingly found myself romanticising more and more those Jacaranda lined streets and the leafy lane ways around the house that I called home for twelve years. As my partner and I walked those familiar streets I felt like I was reclaiming what was lost, that suddenly everything made more sense. These streets felt like me - I felt like myself there. Maybe it’s something to do with my age - as I get closer and closer to having children of my own, I find myself thinking more and more about the fond memories of childhood, rather than the difficult and heartbreaking scenes of my teens. As I walked through the garden in Deloraine, picking fresh raspberries straight from the bush, feeling the heat of the sun on my face, watching the bees dance through the dense field of lavender that fenced the garden, I felt like Lily—equally strange and at home within someone else’s house.
The privilege of having fresh raspberries at my disposal was not something I was going to let go to waste. Over the week spent in Deloraine at any opportunity I would walk out to the bushes and pick berries, still warm, straight off the plant. What I found really remarkable was how many we saw bloom over that week. Watering at night and days full of sunshine meant they just kept appearing, day after day, with each late afternoon seeing us pick a whole punnet worth in one go. On the way from Launceston, we had stopped to buy a few supplies when I came across a honey store. I have a bit of a thing for honey and dream of one day having my own hives, so of course I had to try something new. I absolutely love the strong, deep leatherwood honey that I buy from Tasmania in Melbourne, but without my knowledge we found ourselves staying in the next town from my favourite provider. Something that I hadn’t seen before was a block of honey: like a big slab of butter, this honey has naturally candied to form a block that you can cut off slices from. It remains without a honeycomb so is soft and pure, but even more intensified in flavour than the leatherwood honey that comes by the jar.
So each morning for breakfast I would sit down to a simple breakfast of locally made thick, Greek style yoghurt, berries from the garden mixed with others bought, and locally produced honey. The strong flavour of the honey did not overpower the natural sweetness of the berries, but complimented their tartness perfectly. While I sat in the sunshine eating my breakfast and drinking a cup of milky tea, I went off into a little day dream of one day having my own garden, with hives up the back and fruit and vegetables growing, that I could water and share with my own children, and any strays that may need a place to call home.