The Strays

A Novel


By Emily Bitto

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“Disturbing and magical….with a grace and eloquence.” – NPR Books

“Full of lush, mesmerizing detail and keen insight into the easy intimacy between young girls which disappears with adulthood.” — The New Yorker

The Strays is a knowing novel, and beautifully done.” — Meg Wolitzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Interestings

For readers of Atonement, a hauntingly powerful story about the fierce friendship between three sisters and their friend as they grow up on the outskirts of their parents’ wild and bohemian artistic lives.

On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends Eva and her sisters Beatrice and Heloise, daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. An only child from an unremarkable, working-class family, Lily has never experienced a household like the Trenthams’–a community of like-minded artists Evan and his wife have created, all living and working together to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930’s Australia. And Lily has never met anyone like Eva, whose unabashed confidence and worldly knowledge immediately draw her in.

Infatuated by the creative chaos of the Trenthams and the artists who orbit them, Lily aches to fully belong in their world, craving something beyond her own ordinary life. She becomes a fixture in their home, where she and Eva spend their days lounging in the garden, filching cigarettes and wine, and skirting the fringes of the adults’ glamorous lives, who create scandalous art during the day and host lavish, debauched parties by night. But as seductive as the artists’ utopian vision appears, behind it lies both darkness and dysfunction. And the further the girls are pulled in, the greater the consequences become.

With elegance and vibrancy, The Strays evokes the intense bonds of girlhood friendships, the volatile undercurrents of a damaged family, and the yearning felt by an outsider looking in.




The Switchgate



1930: My mother and I paused on the brick path and she straightened my uniform—a navy blue tunic dress with a starched white collar, a blue felt hat and white gloves. I clutched my toy dog, the one upon whom I had heaped all my guilty love since my mother told me I didn't appreciate the things she bought for me. She took my hand, and we continued up the path to the third-grade classroom. It was still early, and the summer sun had not risen beyond the roof of the school building. The path and garden were in shade, the leaves of camellia bushes freshly varnished by the morning, and blackbirds turned the soil, pausing, listening, scratching again in darts. They froze as we passed and flicked their yellow eyes toward us.

And then we entered the classroom, and there was Eva, the smallest child in the room, with her dark bob and brown eyes beneath a heavy fringe. She was kneeling with several other children on the carpet beside a wooden doll's house. On one hand she had a threadbare velveteen hand puppet in the shape of a dog. She smiled at me, and the teacher, Miss Butterworth, pushed me forward.

"Lily, this is Eva, and Christopher, and Phyllis. Children, this is Lily. She's going to be joining our class this year, so make her welcome."

"Hello, Lily," said Eva.

"Make room for Lily," Miss Butterworth said. "What are you playing? Dolls houses?"

Eva shuffled over and patted the carpet beside her.

"We're playing Deadybones the Wolf," she said.

"Oh. I see," said Miss Butterworth, raising her eyebrows.

I glanced back at my mother. She was taking a seat awkwardly on a child-sized wooden chair along with the other mothers. She nodded to me and turned to the woman next to her.

"Which one is your mother?" I asked Eva as I sat down beside her.

"None of them. She's gone home. But you can see my sisters at recess. Have you got any sisters?"

I had to admit that I did not.

After a while, I was drawn back to the comfort of my mother, and retreated for a moment to her familiarity in the midst of all this newness. She lifted me onto her lap, still talking. I listened to the whispers of the women while I sat, pinching the skin on the back of her hand as I had done since I was a baby. They were talking about Eva, saying that she was the daughter of Evan Trentham, the artist, that her mother was "old money." I pictured a woman made out of dirty pound notes and tarnished pennies.

Miss Butterworth approached the seated women and told them that it was time for them to leave. My mother stood, and I slid from her lap. I began to cry, and she hushed me and then squeezed me tightly for a second. Eva got up and came over to me, holding out her hand, and I put my hand in hers, still sniffling, and went back with her to the game.

At recess I met Eva's two sisters, who came to find her on the quadrangle, where children were jumping rope, playing hopscotch or marbles, and the older ones were starting a game of British Bulldogs. Her older sister was called Beatrice, or Bea for short, her younger, Heloise. It was obvious that Beatrice and Eva were sisters. Their faces were free of the roundness that conceals the future shape of most children's faces. They were fine boned, but did not seem delicate or cosseted. Their arms and legs were brown from the sun, and their hair was dark and, in Bea's case, tangled. There were scratches on their shins, and Bea had a scab on her knee as big as a gobstopper. Heloise was different. She was a serious little girl with milky skin, copper hair, and an uncertain, freckled face. It was her very first day of school, not just at a new school as I was, and she would not join in the game of British Bulldogs.

"You've got big teeth," she said to me.

She sat down cross-legged on the asphalt and ran her hands over its gritty surface. Bea took Eva and me by a hand each and ran with us across the quadrangle at the call of "bullrush" so that we would not be scared of the boys who were the bulldogs. When I looked back at Heloise, she was absorbed in a secret game of her own. Her lips were moving, and she was pecking at the loose gravel with the beak of her thumb and fingers.

At the end of the day my mother returned to collect me, and I clasped myself to the front of her dress, burrowing into the laundry soap and porridge smell of her. I glanced around to see whether Eva's mother had arrived, but Eva was standing beside a tall man who was speaking to Miss Butterworth. Eva waved to me, and I ran over.

"Is that your dad?" I whispered.

"No. It's Patrick," she replied without further explanation.

"I'm sorry, but her parents are busy," the man was saying.

As we left the classroom, Eva waved and called out, "See you tomorrow." I waved back, the next school day suddenly a gift held out to me, then turned to my mother's hand around my own, pulling me homeward.

Eva's mother collected her the next afternoon and spoke briefly to my mother. I remember Helena as pale and long and light, like a taper, swathed in floaty cream fabric and with her dark hair set like ladies in magazines. She smelled of cigarettes and a heavy floral perfume, not the kitchen and laundry scents exuded by my mother.

A few days later I was sitting with Eva and Heloise on the slippery leather seat in the back of their Morris while Bea sat in the front and Helena drove, her face in profile with its flawless skin and rouged cheek, her bouncy hair visible over the seat. Her hand on the wheel was adorned with an emerald ring, and her perfume filled the cabin. We drove out of Box Hill and into the fields and orchards that lingered at the edge of the main streets in those days, until we reached a high gate. Helena sprang out to open it, leaving the motor running, and we crunched onto the gravel driveway and over the threshold. Bea was leaning into the backseat clapping hands with Eva—Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black, with silver buttons, buttons, buttons, all down her back, back, back—while I gazed out the window at the garden and the house coming into view around the bend.

That garden. I still wander in dreams between the pale gray pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of mist, gigantic, as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place. Perhaps Eva showed me the house first, but in my memory we went straight to the garden, and she led me around its open spaces and secret nooks, trailed by a silent Heloise. The garden had a formal section in front of the house, but it had gone more or less to ruin. The hedges were twiggy, and the rose bushes stuck out their arms in all directions. The rest of the garden was wild, with banks of hydrangeas and scarlet geraniums and a huge tussock of sacred bamboo into which the girls had carved a warren of narrow paths like a crazed hedge maze with no center. There was an old train carriage in the back corner of the garden, its walls and floor plumped and buckled by damp. It was called the seed train because it had been a seed and tool shed when Helena's uncle had lived in the house. It still contained the skeletons of rakes and picks, their once-bright blades blistered with rust. Mice and spiders lurked behind ancient bags of bulbs and garden fertilizer. The sisters had their headquarters in a disused chook shed, and a secret den in the hollowed-out bowl of earth beneath the boughs of a casuarina. At the rear of the garden there was a high gate that Eva called the switchgate. It led out to a dirt lane that backed on to orchards.

"We can't go out there because we'll be locked out," Eva told me.


"You can go out but then you can't get back in. That's how it works."

"How do you get back in, then?"

"You have to walk all the way around to the front gate. It's a long way. Except I can't reach the handle so we need Bea to go with us, and she never wants to."

I stood back as Eva opened the latch, for fear that the switchgate would somehow suck me out.

Eva took me up to her bedroom on the house's second story, shutting the door against Heloise. She began to change out of her school uniform, flinging the discarded clothes onto the floor. When she was stripped to her singlet and knickers, she opened her wardrobe and roughed the hanging garments about, making the wooden hangers clack together and thunk against the back of the wardrobe.

"Do you want to change too?" she asked.

"I don't have any other clothes."

"You can wear mine if you like. You can pick whatever you want."

Glancing back at Eva, I chose a straight smock dress in apricot cotton. She chose a green gingham dress with puffed sleeves. I felt that we were now linked in some important way.

Eva opened the bedroom door.

"Good, she's gone." She took my hand and led me to the top of the staircase. "Watch this," she said. She clambered onto the banister and when she was in position, facing backward with one small leg over each side of the rail, holding on with both arms, she grinned at me and slid fast to the bottom of the stairs.

The Trenthams' house had been in Helena's family for three generations. Its charm was of the ramshackle kind, tacked together over years and across architectural periods so that it resembled those European churches with one Gothic wing and one Renaissance. The main building was of timber, but there was a bluestone former laundry and storehouse, now a vast kitchen; a cellar, cold and smelling of mildewed root vegetables; a sunroom and an attic that, through a dormer window, accessed a small platform between gables of the roof, fenced by a low wrought-iron railing, from where the surrounding paddocks and the roofs and gardens of neighboring properties could be surveyed. Eva took me proudly to this crow's nest balcony, where we played ship's captains, peering through a brass telescope at the upper windows of distant houses. We clambered up the slate gables and peeled off the blooms of lichen that flattened themselves against the stone, collecting them within the pages of an atlas that the sisters consulted as their book of sea charts.

Part of the thrill of this perch above the ground-dwelling world of adults, this small fenced plot the sisters had requisitioned from the crows and pigeons and made their own, was its hint of danger. I knew my mother would never allow me to be up there if she knew, and each time we scrambled up the slope of the roof to sit astride the apex was, for me, a mild rebellion against her interminable loving scrutiny. At the Trenthams' we were left gloriously alone to ride the rooftops or circumnavigate the garden as we desired.

On that first afternoon, Eva took me to meet her father in his studio, a large room on the ground floor of the house. The door was ajar, and Eva pushed it open and walked in without knocking.

Evan Trentham resembled the pictures of fearsome bushrangers I had seen in books. He was tall and lanky with a red forest of a beard that parted in a grin when he saw his daughter.

"Chook, chook chookie!" he crowed horribly, setting down a long-handled brush and hoisting her into the air with his stringy arms, which were pale like Heloise's and covered in ginger hair.

Evan Trentham was put together from mismatched stuff. The sinews were too short for the long bones. The tendons behind his ankles and the bald stones of his knees stuck out, hard as the catgut on a tennis racquet. He was like a rubber band stretched tight and close to snapping. He wore blue work pants cut off at the knee and a white undershirt that was yellow beneath the armpits. He was pain stained and sweat smelling.

The room itself was cluttered with paint tins, brushes and books, and reeked of tobacco and turpentine. There was a green chaise longue behind the door, its horsehair stuffing erupting through a hole. A huge half-finished painting stood against the back wall.

Eva giggled as her father nuzzled her with his beard.

"Scratcheeeee," she squealed.

Evan held out his hand to me, shifting Eva onto his hip. "Who's this, then?" he asked. "Mrs. Tiggywinkle?"

I was too scared to move, and did not hold out my hand.

"Don't be silly, Dadda," said Eva. "It's Lily."

"Pleased to meet you, Lily Tiggywinkle," he said a little more soberly. "Any friend of Eva's is a friend of mine. Do you like barley sugar?"

I nodded, mute, and he offered me a tin of yellow barley sugars melted together around a teaspoon. I hesitated.

He passed the tin to Eva. "Show her how it's done, chookabiddy."

Eva dug around in the tin with the spoon and then prized the barley sugar off with her teeth, showing me how it stuck in the roof of her mouth.

Cautious of germs, I took the tin and dug out a small lump, pulling it off the spoon, wet with Eva's spit, with my fingers.

"Will you play Billygoat Gruff with us?" Eva asked her father.

"Not now, chook, still working." Evan put her down and turned back to his canvas.

Eva stamped her foot and went and sat on the chaise longue. I followed her.

I remember staring up at the giant painting Evan was working on. It was one of his now-iconic desert scenes, filled with figures intertwined in an obscenity of postures against the scorching earth. My eyes darted between blues and ochres until I made out the terrible images of policemen in uniform bent over one another, some with mouths wide open. One policeman was tilting a barrel of liquid into the mouth of another. The barrel had a hose attached to it at the top, and it led across the canvas to the back of an outdoor dunny. My throat grew tight. I wanted to look away but I could not.

Eva nudged me and pushed a book toward me, open on a black-and-white reproduction of an artwork. I looked down at the tortured image and asked, "Did he paint that too?"

Across the room, Evan laughed. "A man called Hieronymus Bosch painted it. Isn't that a wonderful name? Don't you wish you were called Hieronymus Bosch? He painted it a very long time ago. I'm just pilfering from him. Bosch in the bush, I like to call it."

"What's pilfering?" I asked.

"Stealing," said Evan.

I didn't know what he meant, only that the book gave me the same rotten feeling in my stomach as Evan's painting.

"Are you hungry?" asked Eva. I nodded. She stood up and led me to the kitchen in the guts of the house, where two fireplaces sat side by side.

Down one end of the room was a great island bench with a wooden slab top. Copper pots hung above it from a metal frame. The sink was a deep marble trough, almost as big as a bath. The other end of the room was dominated by a vast kitchen table. Eva led me to the scullery, poking through the bread bin and the icebox. There was the nose of a loaf surrounded by crumbs, but little else. She spread the crust of bread with jam, and we took turns tearing off tough bites with our teeth.

When it was gone, Eva pushed open the screen door and I followed her to the rear of the house, where there was a flat area of grass backed by curved garden beds so that it formed a large half-moon. To one side of this clearing was an old enamel bathtub, up on stilts above a cast-iron brazier.

On clear evenings to come, Evan would fill the bathtub with water and heat it over a fire for himself or for us to bathe in. Sitting in that bath, breathing in the smells of the garden and the woodsmoke wafting from beneath the tub, still seems to me something close to heaven. After the bath, we would run around the garden, towels held out as wings, circling the fading coals of the bath-fire like huge pink moths.

It was a relief to be back in the bliss of the garden, to leave the feeling of Evan's studio behind. Helena was there in the clearing with the man who had collected Eva from school that first day—Patrick. She was propped up on one elbow on a wooden sun bed. He was sitting on the ground, leaning against the sun bed at the level of Helena's shins. There was something endearing about Patrick; his eyes were pale blue and kind, crinkling up when he smiled. He had broad shoulders and big hands. Though he didn't seem old, his hair was graying and stuck out around his face.

Eva wandered over to Patrick and her mother, who both picked up glasses from the grass and sipped from them—tall glasses covered in beads of moisture and filled with clear liquid, chunks of ice and slices of lemon.

"I'm hungry," said Eva.

"Well, don't look at me," Helena replied. "Go and find some food."

"There is none."

"Oh, piffle. Ask Beatrice to boil you an egg."

For the first time I glimpsed the underside of Eva's home life, and was glad to know that when I went home that night my tea would be ready, and the custard that my mother had made in the cool of the morning would be waiting under a muslin cloth.


WHAT DREW EVA AND ME TOGETHER was our shared sense of imagination. Hers was formed from rich materials, mine from poor; hers developed over endless hours in the exotic garden kingdom she inhabited with her sisters, mine over hours alone. But the end result was the same, and each recognized it in the other.

Besotted as I already was with Eva, that first visit to the Trentham home threw my sense of my own life off balance. I felt as though my home, a semi-detached bungalow we had recently moved into, had shrunk since morning, and our yard was a shoe box sown with only those plants that refused the smallest taint of wildness, even in their names: sweet william, primrose, baby's breath.

That year, everything was new. New school, new house, overheard talk of my father's new job. I was too young to understand the Depression, but it was clear that this newness was not of the good kind, that our house was smaller than the one we had left behind. It was not the luster of a new penny; it was a sharp, garish newness. But Eva was my penny. She had the soft light of recognition. She was warmed, as if by my own hand. I had been asking for a sister, but she was better. I wanted to be with her always and would have discarded my own parents, heartlessly, as only the securely cared-for can.

Thus began the hazy garden years of my childhood, when my life was marred by nothing but the ache. The ache became accustomed, but not mild with familiarity. I felt it whenever my mother arrived to collect me and I watched Eva and her sisters resume the game we had been playing even before I reached the gate. I realized then that the life I was part of one or two precious after-school or weekend days each week was Eva's life always, and continued when I left with little change. I tried not to think about the life that Eva led without me, but every time I saw the sadness of our parting slip from her face as she turned back to her sisters was like biting down on hard toffee and feeling a piece of tooth break away in my mouth.

It was not just Eva I was besotted with, but her whole family. It was a big, noisy, quicksilver family, even at first: Evan and Helena; Bea, Eva and Heloise; and Patrick. Patrick was the brother Evan had chosen even before he chose Helena, discarding his own brothers—both lawyers—who did not fit with his as-yet only imaginary career as an artist. Evan had met Patrick in the first year of a fine art course and convinced his new friend to drop out with him at the end of the year and enroll instead in night classes at the Gallery School under the less classical tutelage of the man who was to become their mentor, Victor Sorrensen. The two men had spent so much time together that they had taken on each other's mannerisms and expressions, so that it was impossible to tell in whom they had originated. They were always laughing, becoming boys again.

Patrick married Vera in the garden of the Trentham home during the year I met Eva, starting the expansion that would continue for the remainder of our childhoods. I remember the long tables with white tablecloths, silver cutlery and crystal glasses set out on the grass, as strange and wonderful as trees growing indoors. Vera was a singer with the Australian Opera, and a very fat man in a suit sang an aria, and later a woman, only slightly less fat, wailed out notes like balloons into the twilight trees. I remember thinking that the bride was not as pretty as a bride should be.

I learned early to mediate, a tiny diplomat between the foreign nations of the Trenthams and my own parents. Only once, during that first year, did my parents invite the Trenthams for dinner. They expected Evan and Helena alone, and I had been fed early and was about to brush my teeth. But, at seven o'clock, Evan and Helena arrived with their three daughters, and my mother had to whisper to my father to entertain them in the lounge while she set more places at the table and tried to make the food stretch. She called me into the kitchen and told me I must eat again.

"Don't let on you've had your tea already," she said. "And don't say we thought they were coming without the girls."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Never mind. Just don't let on." She brushed her hair away from her shiny forehead with the back of her hand as she tipped flour into a mixing bowl.

"But I'm full," I said peevishly.

"Oh, nonsense; you're always hungry. Now get back to the girls while I see to this."

In the lounge room I noticed that my father seemed awkward and uncomfortable. He was a large man but was sitting forward on the edge of his armchair, his knees too close to his body.

"I don't pretend to know about this new modern art myself," he was saying to Evan. "But I do enjoy a visit to the gallery."

"Well, you're not likely to have to face any modern art there, whether you like it or not," said Evan.

"I like the early paintings of the colony myself. You get a real sense of what things looked like back then and how the landscape's changed. History's a particular interest of mine."

Evan had a strange smile on his face, and I felt suddenly ashamed for my father and protective of him.

"Would you fix the guests some drinks, Sam," my mother called from the kitchen.

"Yes, righto," my father said. He eased himself up from his chair and opened the fold-down bar in the sideboard.

"Joan will have a sherry, I know," he said. "Would you like a sherry too, Helena? It's a nice sweet one."

"Gin and tonic if you've got it, please," said Helena.

"Righto," said my father again.

"Dinner's ready, everyone," said my mother, coming into the room still wearing her apron.

"Shall we say grace?" my mother chirped after setting down the serving dishes.

"I'd prefer not," said Evan. "I don't like the girls saying grace."

"Oh… of course," my mother said. "I didn't think."

"It won't hurt them this once," said Helena.

"Oh no, it's perfectly all right," said my mother.

My father frowned but didn't say anything. He began serving mashed potato onto my mother's plate. Evan helped himself to the bottle of claret my father had set on the table.

"Got any more of that stuff, Sam?" Evan asked when the bottle was finished.

My father wordlessly fetched another bottle and opened it, pouring Evan a glass and then placing it back on the sideboard. My mother and Helena were chatting, but my father sat back, no longer making the effort to converse, and Evan became silent too, though his silence was of the drowsy kind. When he finished the glass, he tilted back in his chair, straining the legs, and reached a long arm to the bottle. My father flinched and made a movement toward the sideboard as though to catch the bottle if it tipped. Evan refilled his own glass and my father's, and put the bottle on the table beside his plate. He pulled out a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and began rolling a cigarette, dropping curls of tobacco onto the white tablecloth. I observed all of this with anxiety, wanting my parents and Eva's to be friends.

"We tend not to smoke in here, Evan," said my father.

"Oh, Sam, it doesn't matter," said my mother.

Evan paused with cigarette in hand, looking from my mother to my father, amused.

"Really. Please," said my mother.

My father made a small cough and got up from the table. I was afraid that something bad was happening, but he returned with a glass ashtray and set it in front of Evan.

Heloise became fractious during dessert, and we were sent to the lounge room to play snakes and ladders, where Heloise fell asleep on the carpet. I took Eva and Beatrice to the front sitting room and showed them a jigsaw puzzle I was working on with my father. There was much less to do at my house than there was at the Trenthams'. Our usual imaginary play was constrained by the smallness of the house and somehow, too, by the ordinariness of its rooms.

Evan and Helena left, Helena carrying Heloise in her arms to the car. I rested my head against my mother's waist as she waved the guests off from the doorway, my father standing back and raising his hand only briefly.

My mother sighed as she shut the door. "That was lovely, wasn't it? It's very nice to get to know your friend's family." I nodded. "But it's well past your bedtime, so go and clean your teeth. You're very lucky to have been able to stay up so late. A special occasion."

When I came to find my mother in the kitchen, I heard my father speaking in his angry voice.

"Well, I think he's a child."

"It takes all kinds," my mother soothed.

"I can't believe you just let him refuse to say grace like that."

"I suppose artists can be temperamental," said my mother in a pinched tone.

"And smoke at the dinner table too. I think I might take up painting myself if it'll give me license to get away with whatever I like."

"I wonder they haven't returned the invitation," my mother lamented every so often. "Perhaps we weren't interesting enough for them."

"Oh, leave it, Joan," said my father. "I'd rather not spend another evening with Evan Trentham if it can be helped."

"It's just common courtesy, that's all."

"He was a bore as far as I'm concerned. Wasn't interested in talking about art or history or anything, just drinking himself into a stupor on my good claret."

But my mother, impressed in her bourgeois way with fame and pedigree, could not quite let go of this simultaneous association with both.

"It's a good connection you've made," she said to me, though I did not understand her meaning and loved Eva passionately for her own self.

"They're nice really, Dad," I told my father.

"All right, poppet, if you think so. You're probably a better judge of character than me anyway. I'm just a farm boy. I'd rather stay home and read a book than do all that socializing." He tickled me under the chin and asked if I wanted to work on our jigsaw puzzle.

Whenever I saw Evan at his own table, loud and joking, tossing glasses in the air when they were empty and setting them back down again to be filled by his friends, I thought of that dinner at my parents' house.

Even on egg nights, the Trentham house at dinnertime was less austere than my own. On those evenings we would approach the table after dark, and Evan would lean out of his chair and clutch at his daughters' wrists. "Egg night," he would sing. "It's an egg night, my pretties," and Bea would lead the way to the other end of the kitchen to boil us eggs while the adults continued their noisy art talk.


  • "Emily Bitto writes so well about art, childhood, infatuation, loneliness -- you name it. THE STRAYS is a knowing novel, and beautifully done."—Meg Wolitzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Interestings
  • "Remarkable...Bitto's scenes of the Trentham commune are vividly written, almost painterly."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Showcases a dazzling, gabby and ultimately doomed collection of stray human beings...THE STRAYS invites readers into a world that is by turns disturbing and magical....Word pictures which elevate the ordinary to exquisite appear throughout Bitto's novel..With precise and graceful turns of phrase, Bitto reveals the bond of passion between the two girls, which seems unbreakable but inevitably snaps under all that can't be said. And she delivers all of this with a grace and eloquence."—NPR Books
  • "Full of lush, mesmerizing detail and keen insight into the easy intimacy between young girls which disappears with adulthood."—The New Yorker
  • "Riveting, captivating, with a sense of foreboding threaded throughout. THE STRAYS is such a daring look at art and love and family that you'll want to clear your calendar: you'll be reading it in a day."—Whitney Otto, New York Times bestselling author of How to Make an American Quilt and Eight Girls Taking Pictures
  • "Reading this novel, I realized that this is the kind of book I love best: the young girl narrating a story she feels she cannot understand. Because of the precision of the prose, however, the reader perfectly understands the folly of the adult world and the perilous life the children must somehow try to survive. Thank you to Emily Bitto!"—Jane Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of The Excellent Lombards
  • "Emily Bitto's THE STRAYS is a powerful and precisely imagined journey into the lives of two girls growing up in the avant-garde artistic milieu of post-war Australia. Like Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan novels, Bitto entices and enthralls, probing the pathos of the heart and the unpredictable volatility of friendships and family. But above all, it is the writing itself that delights the reader: vivid, tactile, perfectly wrought, this is prose that weaves a lasting spell."—Paul Kane, award-winning author of Welcome Light
  • "Reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement, Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw, or A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book...THE STRAYS is like a gemstone: polished and multifaceted, reflecting illuminations back to the reader and holding rich colour in its depths."—Stella Prize Judges' Report
  • "[A] sparkling debut."—The National Book Review, "5 Hot Books"
  • "A haunting evocation of life-changing friendship...THE STRAYS is a marvel of setting and characterization, re-creating a time of artistic revolution and personal revelation. Memorable and moving, this is a novel not to be missed."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "Told in both the breathless voice of an easily infatuated child and the more measured tones of a wiser adult, THE STRAYS is a powerful tale of the consequences of creativity."—BookPage
  • "You could lift out any sentence in THE STRAYS and admire the sheer artistry of its melody and composition. What's especially wonderful about Bitto's literary novel is the story never feels weighed down by style. It's an immensely pleasurable read."—Bookseller + Publisher 4.5 stars
  • "Lyrical."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Explores with quiet passion both the cost of creative life on family and the definition of family itself."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Its themes and characters provide universal resonance... THE STRAYS is a thoughtful exploration of what happens when artistic genius and family life collide, and how a relatively short period in one's youth can shape personal and professional choices for a lifetime."—BookReporter
  • "THE STRAYS is a marvellously accomplished and assured debut, announcing a major new talent. Rich in atmosphere and beautifully observed."—Booktopia
  • "Treating this novel as a historical fiction risks missing some of its breadth of insight. THE STRAYSis an eloquent portrayal of the damage caused by self-absorption as well as a moving study of isolation."—The Saturday Age
  • "Bitto writes beautifully, her prose supple and satisfying, her insights and extended metaphors worth lingering over. Of particular note are her characters' perceptive comments on art and her visceral understanding of the only child's ever-unrequited hunger for inclusion - an inclusion that always falls short of the familial, however vexed or careless that familial connection may appear."—The Adelaide Advertiser
  • "Emily Bitto has written a very stylish and enjoyable debut novel."—The Sunday Mail
  • "Pick this one up for the luxe gardens and lavish parties; stay for the powerful, creative coming-of-age tale."—BookPage
  • "With a skilful use of perspective and memory, and a dual adult-child point of view, Bitto reaches far beyond the well-documented narratives and myths of the Heide players to widen and enrich the notion of the artist as mad or bad or eccentric."—Readings Monthly

On Sale
Jan 3, 2017
Page Count
256 pages

Emily Bitto

About the Author

Emily Bitto has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she also co-owns the Carlton wine bar, Heartattack and Vine.

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