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When artists congregate, trouble follows


The Strays

By Emily Bitto


256 pages, $26

An idyll spawns secrets until it is no longer an idyll – and all hell breaks loose – in Australian author Emily Bitto’s impressive first novel, “The Strays.”

Currently making its American debut, the book was winner of the 2015 Stella Prize, to “recognize and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature,” and it is a gem – a period piece, psychological thriller and shattering adolescent love story.

Alan Trentham, an art world sensation of the 1930s, sits at its center, he and his glamorous wife Helena reminiscent of the founders of the Heide Circle, an actual Australian arts commune of the same era. Bitto uses this bit of history when, partway through “The Strays,” the fictional Alan -- whose modernist experimental art often outrages the traditionalists of his day – addresses the young artist/disciples who come often to see him, and the ravishing Helena, in the ramshackle once-grand estate outside Melbourne that she inherited from an uncle.

“Helena and I see an opportunity. To squander her family fortune,” Alan tells his followers. “To take advantage of what we have here. This house. This refuge from the tyrannies of the world. Nothing would please me more that to share this refuge with like-minded compatriots.”

“Why,” he posits, “should I be the only bugger to be allowed the luxury to absent myself from my civic duty, from interaction with the frankly asinine majority, to closet myself away and not give a bandicoot’s arse about what anyone else thinks or does or claims I should be thinking or doing …”

Thus an avant-garde artists’ colony is born – but it is not a phenomenon a reader views from the vantage points of the adults under the Trenthams’ roof. No. This novel belongs to Alan and Helena’s three young daughters and, in particular, their friend Lily, our narrator and the sole individual to develop misgivings, to question, over time, the price of creativity, and fame.

“I am an only child,” Lily announces early on in “The Strays”: “it is my lot to be envious, even grasping, to long for the bonds that tie sisters together, the fearless, unthinking acceptance that we are social creatures, pack animals, that there is never, truly, the threat of being alone.”

It is with this thirst that Lily meets Eva Trentham, a classmate at her new school and the middle of the three daughters of Evan and Helena, the latter of whom soon brings Lily home with her girls after class, Helena “pale and long and light, like a taper, swathed in floaty cream fabric and with her dark hair set like ladies in magazines …”

Helena’s exoticism is matched only by the lush Trentham gardens and tall, rambling home where the Trentham daughters have taken as their own “a small platform between gables of the roof,” a “crow’s nest balcony” (accessible only by a dormer window) that gives the girls a “perch above the ground-dwelling world of adults.”

Lily is both enchanted and seduced by the “hint of danger” inherent not only from this reckless outlook but in life at the Trenthams’ in general. Bitto builds on this frisson throughout “The Strays,” pitting the undisciplined and unpredictable artists’ colony against the staid and rarely eventful life of Lily’s parental home.

Decades later (the story is told in two time frames), Lily will recognize her choosing of the chaotic Trentham household over her own as being “reeled in by the enticing bait of Evan and Helena.” But as a girl, when her father is injured in a work accident requiring all of her mother’s attention, Lily simply goes where life is more alluring, slipping into the Trenthams’ world just as Evan’s devotees do.

In this way, Bitto creates such a confluence of factors that the artists’ commune, and everyone in it, can only end in tears. Not right away, of course, and not without everyone taking part in the delicious early days of the experiment, in particular Lily and the Trentham daughters – she and Eva just 14, Beatrice a bit older, Heloise younger, none of them ever supervised by Evan or Helena or the new adults on the Trentham premises.

These include Ugo, Maria and Jerome – all painters – and Patrick, a longtime artist friend of Evan’s, who doesn’t move in but is usually around, and later brings along a wife, an opera singer named Vera. These are “the strays” – who, in an irreversible turnabout, will soon relinquish this status to unsuspecting others.

“In a house, as in a garden, there is a point when over-mingling can occur,” Lily reflects ominously at about the nine-month juncture. “In the (Trentham) house, there was a period when everyone thrived…Then, slowly, the balance began to slip.”

By this time, and among other scenarios, Beatrice privately fancies herself in love with Jerome (the artist whose work is about to eclipse Evan’s). Evan has a painting seized by the authorities (for its alleged obscenity). Heloise stops going to school. Helena, her own artistic talent subsumed by her husband’s, flirts more, drinks more and interacts less with her daughters. Parties and art exhibitions devolve into shouting matches.

Lily sees things she knows she shouldn’t and watches while her friendship with the headstrong and complex Eva – with whom she used to sleep, their limbs entangled – begin to change, Eva becoming distant, wandering off, no longer the girl Lily once described as someone expecting her “to be as free and childish as she was.”

Thus Bitto forewarns while keeping the focus on Evan -- art’s bad boy of the moment -- who will be remembered years hence for (in Lily’s paraphrase of an art historian) “his audacity in the face of convention and criticism, his obscenity trial, his international reputation” as well as, with Helena, his support of “the art community and younger, emerging artists.”

But at what cost?  This seems Bitto’s abiding question – and, while some critics have touted similarities between “The Strays” and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” there is no adolescent offender in Bitto’s book.

But there are adolescents -- four of them, all female, all blooming – and nearly twice that number of creative, intense and highly unconventional adults. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that the configuration is a recipe for one beautiful if heartrending, and continuing, disaster – with some rich and kaleidoscopic writing along the way.

Karen Brady is a former news columnist.

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