Emily Bitto's debut novel The Strays focuses on the childhood friendship of Lily and Eva in 1930s Australia. As an eight-year-old, on the first day of a new school, Lily meets Eva, the daughter of an Australian avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. Soon, Lily is swept up in Eva's world: her parents Evan and Helene, her sisters Bea and Heloise. Lily is enraptured by the family, and cannot believe what goes on in their house. Other artists move into Helene and Evan's large house, and it becomes a sort of commune (Bitto based this on the real-life Heide Circle, a group of Australian modernist artists who lived and worked together in the 1930s and 1940s).
No spoilers (obviously), but you can feel a sense of catastrophe build. Older Lily narrates - kind of - and is clearly looking back on her years with the Trenthams with acute sadness. She reflects upon the dissolution of her best-friendship with Eva: "This is what adulthood is, I thought: this secrecy; this cultivation of separateness. No more of the porous, open intimacy between our souls and minds and bodies. If this is adulthood, then this is what I must be."
What frustrated me the most about the novel is how little it dwells in the aftermath of the terribleness that occurs about 2/3rds of the way through. I also felt like even though the story was set in the Depression, rarely did the historical period enter into the story. And maybe this was the magic of Britto's novel: the tale of one girl, and her longing for a bigger family, and her envy/love for her friend. One passage caught me:
And Eva? I wanted to love her without envy. To say to others, 'She is amazing. So beautiful and kind and clever.' But I could not. I could not say those things without wanting to convey something cruel beneath the words. I wanted to be a girl, like Eva, who did not envy other girls their good fortune, their beauty or intelligence or happiness. But I could not be one of those girls. I could not damp the hot envy that tinged my love for Eva with a desire to see her fail in some small way. To want what she had. (146)