Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Stella Prize-winning "The Strays": A Book Review

The book on display at The Book Cafe, Swan Street Melbourne
It always feels terrible tearing apart someone’s debut novel. Most are just the first step in a long journey, and all you want to do is applaud the author for even trying.

But what if it is a decisive step in the wrong direction? Worse, what if she is being egged on? Is it not your duty then to step-in, nudge her shoulder and point out her mistake?

It is with this spirit that I am taking to task The Strays, Emily Bitto’s debut novel. Because this poorly characterized and badly set novel has just been awarded this year’s Stella Prize, a literary award of $50,000 for Australian women writers. In particular, the prize aims to “provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers” and no, this novelist is not ready to become a role model yet. She has a lot to learn.

Bitto’s novel is the story of a bohemian art commune set up by an avant garde artist couple, the Trenthams, in 1930s Melbourne. It is told from the perspective of a young girl, Lily, who as the best friend of one of the couple’s three daughters, is one of the “honorary strays” in the commune. The other strays are the Trentham girls – Bea, Eva and Heloise – and the men and women artists who inhabit the house and create its bohemia.

Lily is the only daughter of a working class couple in Melbourne, who is cherry-picked by Eva Trentham for friendship on her first day at a new primary school. There is an immediate attraction between them, according to Lily, which is akin to a connection from a past life. And yet, we are never quite sure what exactly is the basis of this friendship.

Eva is an independent, imaginative, free-spirited creature, evidenced from a number of events: the way she speaks to her father as an equal, her adventures, her rebellion against her mother, her secret love affairs, her running away from her parents and then from her lover.

Lily is the exact opposite. Not once, does she show any signs of independence or imagination. All she ever does is trail Eva, bask in her reflected glory, follow along in the mischiefs plotted, planned and executed by Eva. She lives off the scraps of excitement that come her way by existing on the peripheries of the Trentham household.

Lily’s true role is that of Eva’s shadow. But Bitto, the author, wants us to believe otherwise. Early on she emphasizes:

“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”

I challenge the readers of this book to present any evidence of Lily’s imagination. There is none. Imagination implies being able to see things beyond the obvious, and Lily never sees anything but the obvious. If she has a rich internal world, we are never made privy to it. Even her infatuation of Jerome Carroll, one of the artists, is timid and tepid. All her dreams have been handed down by Eva and she freely admits to it. The word that jumps to mind with respect to Lily is “dull”.

Which brings us to the biggest puzzle of this book? Why has Bitto chosen such a dull, unobservant, unquestioning narrator to tell us the story of big, bold characters experimenting with big, bold ideas, as the artists of this story are supposed to be. Lily has nothing interesting to say about them other than the obvious - that they are iconoclasts, a conclusion that she doesn’t even come to herself but absorbs from the surrounding gossip, conversations and events.

This big story contains men and women who broke the conventions of their times and paved a new road for a whole generation of artists to come, we are told. And they paid a price for it by way of the destruction of their own family. But when presented through the lens of such a dull narrator, it becomes not about the clash of ideas, conventions and personalities or about the art produced and consumed, but about the superficial gaiety of their lives, the parties, the clothes, the celebrity, the glamour, and the bohemia of their lives.

Using a child as your narrator can be a powerful tool. As To Kill The Mockingbird showed us, intelligent children can be sharp, observant and questioning of the events around them. Their untutored gaze can crack open and question the prejudices that we adults have come to internalize. Imagine the possibilities that an intelligent child could bring to this setting of artists trying to create a whole new visual language in Australia and living lives that defied the conventions of 1930s marriage, parenthood and family.

Instead, we get a child who instead of questioning the ideologies of the adults, actually absorbs them. Does it matter that she is absorbing the ideologies of unconventional people, because such unquestioning acceptance doesn’t allow us to dig beyond the surface. Lily has no insightful questions to ask about anything because she is so in awe of all the other characters.

She fails to seriously question the Trentham’s neglectful parenting. Of course, she tells us that the children are mostly left to their own devices. But other than for the youngest, Heloise, we don’t see any real consequences unfolding for the others. And while Heloise is slowly turning trenchant, uncontrollable, and possibly vicious, Lily has no time to share her dilemma with us. Cruelly shunned by her sisters and largely ignored by her parents, Heloise is a very lonely child who feels strongly about her situation over which she has little control. It is a traumatic childhood. But through Lily’s shallow narration, the failing almost seems to lie in Heloise for her lack of self-control and for feeling so intensely about her situation. After a particularly traumatic episode in young Heloise’s life, here is what our empathetic Lily has to say about her:

“When Heloise talked about that night, even years later, it was with a bitter seriousness, a complete inability to see the events other that as they occurred to her as a seven-year-old. It became a foundation myth, a lasting symbol of the troubled nature of Heloise’s childhood, the real sufferings she endured, but also the way she experienced these sufferings, reliving them over and over until they wore away their own caged-animal paths within her.”

With this Lily shifts the blame of Heloise’s tragic life from her parents to her own self. Yes, her childhood was troubled but the real blame lied in the way Heloise viewed her own childhood rather than with her parents. Leaving aside Heloise’s decline, their neglectful parenting mostly came down to boiled eggs that the children ate for dinner, which Lily mentions on at least three occasions as a symbol of the sufferings of the Trentham children. Other than that, they have a rather grand time left free to do as they pleased.

Another opportunity for Lily to question Trenthams’ disregard for conventional parenting lay in comparing them to her own conventional and loving, if a tad dowdy, parents. But Lily has no time for them. If they exist at all for her, it is to present the Trenthams as glamorous, confident and attractive in comparison. Even when her father almost loses a leg in an accident, through Lily, the event comes across as almost celebratory as she now gets to spend an entire summer with the Trenthams.

In fact, to Lily, her own parent’s lack of glamour and sophistication is a blight that she never forgives them for. Even when she is well and truly dumped by the Trenthams, and is back living with her own parents, she never reflects back at how the steadiness of their temperament compared to the Trentham’s fickleness. Instead, she wallows in grief at her sudden drop of status – as she is no longer Eva’s chosen one – and at the loss of all the dreams that Eva had fed her of a glamorous life ahead.

Another trouble with Lily is that she is not observant. Mind you, she sees and hears, but she doesn’t observe. We have a houseful of young men and women living together, but Lily doesn’t sense any illicit undercurrents and is as shocked as everyone else when such liaisons are exposed. If there were personality clashes of any consequence, we are not told of them – except peevish Heloise’s fights with everyone. Instead, Lily floats along giddily on the surface of this glamorous bohemian commune. But what is a Bohemia worth unless we are allowed to dive into the undercurrents that eventually break it apart. When the blow-up happens, it is swift and not terribly scandalizing, and not much is discussed of its aftermath. All we learn is that the unconventional sisters come to a bad end, and the artists mostly flourish.

Which brings me to the artists.

This book is presented as peek into the 1930s Melbourne art world, when modern art was struggling to find a place for itself in Australia. But this book is not about the art or the ideas that underpinned the new form or for that matter any serious challenges the artists faced. In the entire book, Bitto mentions three artworks specifically – as works that struck Lily in some way, though how exactly she never explains – and the artistic debates of any length are limited to two, both of which are filled with clich├ęs on capitalism, artistic freedom and artist as a madman. The art world is presented with all the insightfulness of a society magazine: the gay parties, Evan Tretham’s loud, sexually charged personality, Emily Trentham’s bitchiness, the nude models, and the mention of a lawsuit of obscenity brought against Evan Trentham.

Without any serious discussion about their art or their ideas, what we are left with are caricatures of artists. We have the persona of an artist – the erudite books, the sunny communal studio, the European foods, the clothes, the disregard for social conventions – but without the actual art, we can’t fill these personas with any substance.

Of course, one can argue that the narrator was a child so to expect her to pick up on the intellectual debates would be unrealistic.

No, in fact, an intelligent child can become a very resourceful channel to examine artworks, ideas and social mores because they can question anything without the author having to justify their questions. A child’s clear-eyed gaze would have been a great way to examine what people hated about this new form, and an intelligent child’s language could have presented the sheer genius of modern art in a way that a layperson could understand.

The problem, as I have mentioned before, is that Lily is a dull child. And by creating her, Bitto has outed herself as a dull author.

At the end, we have to wonder what this novel is all about?

Is it about friendship? It is not because there is no equal friendship at play here. We are never really told what Eva likes in Lily, except her unquestioning loyalty. But unquestioning loyalty, unless brought into question and tested, is uninteresting. In this story, that dilemma is given all of two pages. Instead, reams and reams are given to discussing the surface details of the Trentham lives and those of the artists, what they liked eating, reading, wearing and talking.

Is it about parenting? After all, the Trentham daughters suffer and we can squarely blame the parents’ failure to build any trust or reliability with their children for it. But as illustrated above, Bitto doesn’t really delve into what good parenting means or what trust and reliability can lead to. After all, Lily never recognizes or discusses the role that her own conventional parents played in the person she eventually became and the life she built for herself.

So is it about the art world? It is and it is not. It is certainly not about the art or the intellectual, political and social debates that went with it. It is about the superficial trappings of the art world – the glamour, the scandals, the larger-than-life personalities. In fact, long after Eva has disappeared from Lily’s life she continues trying to find a place in this world, falling in love and having a child with an artist before finding a happy balance as an art historian married to an economist and living a conventional middle-class life. But again, this transformation is not something that Lily is necessarily at peace with. She sees it as a lacking in herself, a failure to embrace, accept and rough out the emotional fickleness of an artist’s life (though of course, such fickleness is as much a myth built by society pages as anything else). In fact, when her daughter rebukes her for the safe choices she made, Lily smarts and starts questioning herself instead of correcting her daughter.

There is a word used to describe a person who exists on the peripheries of the art world, basking in the natural charisma of artists, hoping that some of it would rub off him or her too. He is called a hanger-on. This book, at the end, is not about “The Strays” but about “A Hanger-On”, and we are asked to empathise with her.

And we would, if only Bitto would be honest about her narrator’s shallowness. Instead, she keeps trying to imbue her with false dignity. But this is precisely what makes her weak author: her own inability to see her own narrator for what she is, a pathetic, shallow hanger-on, who never grew up to become something more.

A shorter version of this review was published on the online Australian cultural magazine The Big Smoke. You can view it here