“Time and sunshine began to seem endless.”
What a treat to dive straight from one brilliant book into another. Just pages into Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, I was utterly enraptured. It is a very interesting theme that seems to be transpiring this year indeed – the books that have mesmerised me most have each been first novels penned by emerging women writers. I am sure there must be something meaningful in that!
The Strays takes place in Melbourne, my beloved home, albeit in the 1930s. A young girl named Lily befriends Eva, who is one of the three daughters of controversial modernist painter Evan Trentham. Very quickly Lily slips into the life of the Trentham family – a life that is a very different to the one she is used to. Their home is big, old and exciting, surrounded by sprawling gardens, orchards and paddocks. Eva and her sisters are left to run wild under the decidedly disinterested eye of their parents, who are rather more livened by the idea of fostering a community of creatives also willing to push the boundaries of conservative Australia.
Over the course of several years the Trentham home grows, a ramshackle brood of artists and children in which Lily yearns to belong. She is enamoured by and envious of these bohemian characters. It is decades later that we join adult Lily in a recollection of what eventually became the most painful and haunting period of her life.
For me, Bitto truly nailed the character of Lily and I couldn’t help but keenly connect to her depiction of childhood friendships. This book makes me remember that intensely peculiar feeling that came with visiting the home of a school friend; seeing another kid’s ordinary life always had an element of the extraordinary to it, even if it wasn’t quite as exotic as the Trenthams’. I recall the strange role of power that friends always took on when playing host, to whom I was suddenly at total behest – and on top of that, bearing a kind of neutral, invisible witness to the parental power structure under their roof. I still feel an embarrassed, awkward pang to remember my childhood self watching on idly as a friend was berated or punished by a parent (sometimes for deeds in which I was also inherently involved!), or on the contrary – seeing a friend talk boldly back to a parent in ways I’d never imagine.
The 1930s, outer-Melbourne setting also rang strangely similar to the kinds of places I found myself in as a kid who grew up in rural Victoria: big old country houses with plenty of room for mucking about outdoors. It was quite unfamiliar territory, reading a book that indulged both the country kid in me as well as the accustomed Melbournian. Knowing the location and history behind every suburb and street name gave this story such a deeper level of understanding, and it makes me feel rather sheepish to realise I just don’t read a lot of local fiction. After The Strays, I will be making a more pointed effort to do just that.
There are many cups of tea in The Strays. There is lots of coffee and wine and whiskey, and several boiled eggs. Not much baking. But somehow, these ‘grasshopper brownies‘ from Smitten Kitchen came to me instantly and I couldn’t shake the idea of pairing them with this book. Back when I was a kid having sleepovers at friends’ houses, one friend’s mother in particular made a sensational peppermint slice that I was practically obsessed with. Whenever it appeared, I ate a lot of it.
A little childhood excitement pricked in me when I stumbled across Smitten Kitchen’s grasshopper brownie recipe some time ago, because I thought perhaps I’d found my adult answer to that delicious memory. Of course, as these things often go, it remained unbaked in my Bookmarks folder for years.
I was just waiting for the right inspiration, it seems.
Happy reading, folks – and make sure to let me know what wonderful books have hit your sweet spot lately. x