A Hanger-On would have been a more honest title of this year’s Stella Prize winning novel The Strays, writes Chetna Prakash.
Tearing apart someone’s debut novel always feels shitty because it takes a lot to put yourself out there with your first artistic endeavour. However, if the work is already been heaped with praise, and feted as an example for others to follow, then all bets are off. For the sake of the author and the writing community, we need to examine it much more critically to see if it truly deserves the accolades.
It is with this spirit that I am taking to task Emily Bitto’s The Strays. This poorly characterised 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”. But Bitto is far from ready to become a role model for young writers. She has to hone her skill a lot more before that.
Bitto’s novel is the story of a bohemian art commune set up by an avant-garde artist couple, the Trenthams, in 1930s Melbourne. The narrator of the story is 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 other artists who live in the house and create its bohemia.
There are three themes running parallel through the novel: friendship, family and art. But Bitto’s exploration of all three is at best superficial.
Is this novel about friendship? It is not, because there is no equal friendship at play here. While Eva is imaginative, bold, free spirited – qualities evidenced by her adventures, mischiefs, demeanour and love affairs – Lily is the exact opposite. She is Eva’s shadow, trailing her everywhere and basking in the reflected glory of Eva’s actions and imagination.
We are never really told what Eva likes in Lily, except her unquestioning loyalty. But unquestioning loyalty, unless brought truly tested, is uninteresting. In this story, that dilemma is given few, hasty pages towards the end, where Lily is the keeper of Eva’s secret of her intended elopement, and is not sure whether to tell her parents or not. Acting true to her dull self, she chooses not to.
Is the novel about parenting and family? After all, Eva and Heloise suffer in life, and we can squarely blame the Trenthams’ failure to build any trust or reliability with their children for it. The problem is that the absence of parenting, and what that meant for the girls, is never truly explored. We are told 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 narration, the failing almost seems to lie in Heloise for her lack of self-control and for feeling so intensely about her situation, because that is all she shares with us about Heloise.
Moreover, Bitto doesn’t delve into what good parenting means or what trust and reliability can lead to, either. Lily never recognises or discusses the role that her own conventional parents played in the person she eventually became and the life she built for herself. 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 curiously celebratory as she now gets to spend an entire summer with the Trenthams.
So is The Strays about the art world? It is and it is not. It is certainly not about the art, because all the intellectual, political and social debates that truly underpinned the rise of modern art are given short shrift in this novel. Instead, reams and reams are given to discussing the surface details of the Trentham lives and those of the artists, the scandals, the parties, and what they liked eating, reading, wearing and talking.
In fact, long after Eva has disappeared from Lily’s life, Lily 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. 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 a weak author: her own inability to see her own narrator for what she is, a shallow hanger-on who never grew up to become something more.