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The Strays – Emily Bitto

“There is no intimacy as great as that between young girls”. So, thinks Lily about her childhood friendship with Eva.

Elena Ferrante wrote about the friendship of girls and women in her Neapolitan series, and I am sure that every woman who read these novels thought about her own experience. We have probably all had friends, who we may or may not have kept in touch with, who we still think of with a mix love and regret. I often wonder what became of the girl who was my closest friend in Grades 5–7. A happy child, she became an anorexic teenager, before we lost touch completely. And a friend during later teenage years with whom I have had an on-again off-again relationship in our adult years depending on the trajectory of our lives. Every reader of The Strays by Emily Bitto will find themselves thinking of their own relationships with the girls they knew during their own formative years.

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The Strays is narrated by Lily, now a mature woman, as she tells the story of her early adolescence and her friendship with Eva Trentham. Eva is the middle of three daughters, their father, Evan, a well know modernist artist, their mother, Helena, a beauty. The time is the 1930s, the place Melbourne, Australia. Lily is an only child and Eva her closest friend. Lily becomes almost a member of the Trentham family.  When Lily’s father is ill and cannot work, they move in with grandparents – but in order for Lily to continue to attend the same school she instead moves in with Eva’s family – becoming a defacto fourth daughter.

Eva’s family is so completely different from Lily’s staid parents. The Trenthams are what might be called bohemian – they talk about anything and everything in front of the children – they have friends who come and go at all hours of the day and night – and eventually some move in and their home becomes a sort of communal artists colony with Evan the mentor to them all. All a heady atmosphere for impressionable young girls. The eldest daughter, Beatriz, behaves as a sort of mother to the other children – seeing that they are fed and sent off to school, providing a modicum of supervision that Evan and Helena do not.

This is a thought provoking and sometimes disturbing novel. We have all experienced the “light sensitive strip of memory” as we find ourselves sometimes remembering exactly a moment in our lives a decade, or several decades, ago as clearly as if it were now.

The many long weeks when Lily lived with Eva’s family coloured her life forever after. The events of that time changed everyone in the family. Lily’s loyalty and deceit, combined with Eva’s reckless desire and treachery caused a rift that ended their friendship. Through Beatrice, with whom Lily stayed in touch throughout her adult life, there was news of Eva but her absence and her choice to remain out of touch was a loss that Lily felt deeply, always.

Thirty years later, when a retrospective exhibition of Evan Trentham’s paintings is planned Lily is invited to attend, by Eva. A lot has happened to both of them in the intervening years. Is it possible to put the damage of the past behind and show the love they still each feel for the other – or is it just far, far too late?

You’ll have to read The Stays to find out – and it will be one of the best books you’ll read in 2017. A great way to start the New Year.

  

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