Review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

30145124*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Strays

Author: Emily Bitto

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada

Publication Date: January 3, 2017

ISBN: 9781455537723

The Strays: A Novel
Synopsis from Goodreads:
On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. Lily has never experienced anything like the Trenthams’ home, where Evan and his wife have created a wild, makeshift family of like-minded artists, all living and working together to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930’s Australia. An only child accustomed to loneliness, Lily soon becomes infatuated with the creative chaos of the Trenthams and aches to fully belong. Despite the Trenthams’ glamorous allure, the artists’ real lives are shaped by dire Faustian bargains and spectacular falls from grace. As the girls find themselves drawn closer to the white-hot flame of creativity, emotions and art collide with explosive consequences–and Evan’s own daughters may be forced to pay a dangerous price for his choices.
—–
The synopsis of this story does a good job of hiding most of what goes on in this shocking tale, so much so that I was completely surprised at how this book unfolded. I loved that nothing is revealed and Bitto’s tale remains quite a surprise. This book evoked a lot of emotion in me: shock, anger, sadness, intrigue. This story of artists coming together is very visceral. The emotion of the characters in a story told decades after the fact, is still raw and very much present.

Lily, the narrator, takes on a fly-on-the-wall role in this story. Her role as the narrator is not to tell her own story, but to share the story of the Trentham family. We’re as distant from her as she feels from her own family. It’s hard to get to know her because her words are observations of the goings on around her. She loves this world where she is accepted without question–although the reader sees this as something akin to neglect. She can escape her own world by letting the Trentham family consume her. Lily is a vessel for this story.

I found the book to be a little chaotic. There are a lot of relationships taking place: Lily and Eva, the Trenthams, the artists that come to reside in the home, Lily and her parents, Eva’s sisters. It’s a whirlwind, but I think that’s the point. I think that Bitto shares this world through the eyes of a growing child. She doesn’t fully understand the world around her, but through this book, she comes to learn things both beautiful and horrible.

There are some pretty tough themes and topics dealt with in this book, and I don’t know if they are fully resolved. I didn’t feel completely satisfied in the end. I wanted more. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but this is a story so turbulent that a happy ending may not be possible. Bitto has an alluring writing style and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she presents her world and her characters. However, it’s not a book that made me happy. It talks about many upsetting things, presented through the eyes of a child who’s ignorance prevents her–at least until she’s older–from fully understanding.

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