Sunday, 11 October 2015

Bohemian Rhapsody

Emily Bitto's debut novel The Strays (2014) won the 2015 Stella Prize for fiction, and deservedly so. This is a beautiful, intellectual novel which showcases Bitto's talents.

It is the 1980s and art history lecturer Lily receives an invitation to attend a gallery retrospective of the works of Evan Trentham, a controversial artist that changed the Australian art scene decades earlier. Immediately Lily is catapulted back to her childhood memories of growing up in the 1930s with her best friend Eva Trentham, Evan's daughter. What follows is Lily's reminiscences of her childhood and a story of love, friendship and betrayal.

Only child Lily lives at home with her parents after relocating to Melbourne. She is lonely and in need of company from someone her own age. At school she befriends Eva and is quickly incorporated into Eva's bohemian family which is so dissimilar to her own, providing her the sense of belonging she has longed for.

The Trenthams have captivated the Melbourne art scene - modernist Evan and his wife Helena with her cool beauty. They have created a haven and gathered stray artists to live and work among them, free from the pressures of bills and jobs, where they can devote themselves entirely to their creative endeavours. Calling themselves the Melbourne Modern Art Group, they challenge traditional art and push the boundaries. Maria, Ugo, Jerome and others join the colony.

With the adults focussed on themselves and their art, the Trentham's daughters - Beatrice, Eva and Heloise - have grow up largely unsupervised. They spend their days among the gardens of the Trentham's home and their nights around adult parties and conversations about art, poetry, and politics. Lily becomes yet another stray, spending all her time as a hanger-on in this household.

As Lily and Eva enter their teenage years things change and the intensity of their relationship is tested. Lily reflects back on the various paths she and the Trentham girls take and how their lives intersect and intertwine over the subsequent decades.

I really loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Bitto is a genuine talent and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.