“It could almost have been comical, slapstick, but instead it was terrifying. Those moments when the adults we have constructed in our minds as invincible are revealed as vulnerable, afraid.”
Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, is a fascinating story of friendship, love and art through the retrospective eyes of Lily. It was the cover of this book that caught my eye, and I’m glad it did! In this novel, Lily reflects on her childhood and her fierce friendship with a classmate, Eva, whose parents are both artists. As Lily is drawn into this new and interesting world of creative chaos, she becomes closer to Eva’s family. However, the utopian artists’ world becomes more and more complicated before crumbling around the girls, leaving deep repercussions for the family and for Lily.
Thematically, this novel has a lot in common with Emma Cline’s book, The Girls – both stories depict a younger girl being swept away into a mysterious, seductive, world through an intimate friendship with other girls. Lily has had a very sheltered, uninteresting life before meeting Eva and seems very vulnerable throughout her time with Eva’s family. I found it very poignant that Lily’s whole world is at Eva’s house, with Eva’s siblings and parents, but Eva’s parents repeatedly mention that they don’t even notice whether Lily is there or not.
Emily Bitto does a great job of maintaining a sense of tension throughout this novel. Eva’s family (and the artists with whom they live) lives in a quasi-utopian world, but there is always a sense of impending doom. The odd power balances and subtle manipulations between characters add to this effect. This tension is also built by Eva’s youngest sister, Heloise. Heloise (whose name I don’t want to try to pronounce) has a bizarre, almost creepy, presence in the house. We find out early on that she is the first of the three sisters to die, but she seems so peculiar that I was always waiting to find out what happened to her, and whether that was the main reason for Lily and Eva’s fallout. I am a bit baffled by Bitto’s treatment of Heloise as a character. I thought it was very interesting and unusual that she seems to be a secondary (or even tertiary) character when compared with the others and yet a huge amount of the plot centres around her.
This novel is divided into three general sections: the first and third take place in the present day of the story while the middle section is Lily recalling her experiences as a younger girl. My least favourite section was the last of the three. In the final section of the novel I became a bit confused by the timeline. The chapters jumped around from the past to the present and I had trouble figuring out where I was in the overall narrative. This section also became exceedingly dark and brooding. It felt tired: heavy, even. I really did not like the end of this book. Generally, I like to finish the story and then reflect on the story and the characters. Here, Bitto does all of the work for me by imposing her own (or Lily’s own) thoughts about the events of the story right into the narrative. I might have liked the book better overall if the first and last sections of the novel had been cut, only leaving the middle section. If this had been the case, I would have been able to spend a bit more time contemplating the deeper complexity of the characters, relationships and plots in this story.
Overall, I really enjoyed Bitto’s depiction of young girls trying to discover themselves through their relationships with family and friends. I found the world created by the eccentric and inventive characters very absorbing. More than anything else, this story explores what it means to be an adult, a parent, a friend and an artist trying to make their way in the world. While I had some issues with the overall structure of the novel, overall I found it to be charming and well told – The Strays is worth a read!