The strays by Emily Bitto (winner of the 2015 Stella Prize)
By Emily BItto
“ The Strays is loosely based on the Heidelberg painters who lived with John & Sunday Reed in the 1930s ”
The Strays is loosely based on the Heidelberg painters who lived with John & Sunday Reed in the 1930s, at the site of what is now the Heide Museum of Modern Art. This bohemian collection of modernist painters included Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and John Perceval.
Their work was experimental and lambasted by conservative art critics, and their lifestyle was just as unconventional, making things up as they went along, changing partners, smoking pot and discussing intellectual, political and artistic values around a campfire at night.
Despite the narrator being fictional (the close friend of one of the Reeds daughters) the writing feels very real – more like a memoir than a novel. We are given insight into the forces which shaped and eventually toppled the close knit circle, seen through the eyes of a smart but impressionable adoptee to the family. She is excited by the flamboyant artists, (infatuated with one of them), and terribly afraid of being returned to her own dull family.
The Reeds’ neglect of their children has tragic consequences which we learn about through the reminiscences of the middle aged narrator in the second half of the book. These are thoughtful, insightful pages, tinged with regret and self-knowledge, and they make this quietly simmering, beautifully written book even more poignant.
Reviewed by Ms Michelle Sweeney