The Strays

A stunning portrait of Australia (and a cast of colourful characters) discovering its modernist identity

the strays by emily bitto — book review
Release Date
May 1, 2014
Emily Bitto
Page Count
Goodreads Rating
Historical Fiction, Australia
What to expect
Themes of ambition, purpose and sacrifice; modern art in Australia
Who's it for?




Bold, brash, and full of colour. Much like its characters.



Bitto writes with visceral elegance and her subjects are described with painterly detail; you can almost smell the turps and oil paints, feel the sunburnt Australian air and hear the slurry of nightly conversation in this artists’ commune.


I was learning the habit of attention, of noticing the world in all its ravishing detail and complexity. The habit of being amazed. They told stories, looking at objects and people until they shook them clean of the dust of everyday and made them myth.



We find ourselves amidst the Depression, in 1930s Melbourne, Australia. Lily has found herself not just tied at the waist to her new best friend Eva, but with an escape chute from her uppity, conservative family neighbourhood. She lands feet first into a bohemian circus, otherwise known as the Trentham family. Lily almost becomes a stray herself, spending more nights with her friend’s family than her own.

Evan Trentham is a modernist painter who invites a bevy of like-minded artists to live with him and his family. This opens up to Lily being exposed to all the elements this lifestyle throws at her; she finds herself ‘to be a dog under the table, scrounging after dropped morsels’ as she watches and listens to this colorful world around her.

As it is the case with some childhood friends, the two girls find themselves torn apart by all the intricacies of growing up and cavorting with temptation. Yet, it’s not their ending that is this story’s purpose, but the journey towards it, as we glimpse a hedonist moment in avant-garde Australia and its impact on those who create it, or those simply watching from the gallery floor.



I found myself feeling the story itself ‘strays’ towards its ending, as we’re pulled forward through the years and Lily reflects on her life now, and then. Yet, it’s a satisfactory conclusion, with surprising details that tie the story together.

Artwork © The Bookish Type

Artwork © The Bookish Type



I loved the parallel in this story of Lily, the wide-eyed teenager who is drawn to this ramshackle house and its noisy community of artists, to the quiet observer in a gallery taking in a spectacle of brave and exuberant work by a new modernist painter.

The brushstrokes of daily life in the Trentham household splatter colour and conversation to all corners of the canvas. We see this world through Lily’s sheltered eyes. We see the beauty — and we see the ugly side, too.

You could say this is a portrait of a girl who is coming of age; she and her teenage compatriots become just as important to the story as the artists are (loosely based on the Heide Circle, from Australian modernist art history). The female characters take centre stage, with themes of loss, sacrifice, ambition and belonging coming to the fore.

The book also contains echoes of Australia’s coming-of-age moment; emerging through the Depression and grappling with a new identity in the modern world, particularly with regards to its artists and their important work.

I’d recommend this to anyone who loves Australian history and/or art.


I was the perfect witness, an unsuspected anthropologist disguised within the body of a young girl, surrounded by other young girls who were part of the family. Yet I was a cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hoarding and collecting information.

The Strays
Artfully written
Australia's history revealed in a new light
Escapism for bohemians
Ending (could have been earlier)
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A colourful, curated blend of books, wine and creativity, with a soft spot for Australian work and female-centric narratives.

Fable and Fizz would like to acknowledge the Whadjuck Noongar people as the traditional owners and continual custodians on the lands and waters this content is primarily written on. I pay respects to their Elders — past and present. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
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