Review of The Strays by Emily Bitto

Posted by in netgalley copy

I've never been completely convinced Australia exists. I've met many Australians, I've know non-Australians who have been to Australia, I watched a lot of Heartbreak High when it aired on Showcase in the 90s. So, rationally, I know Australia exists, but if Australia were to suddenly be like "Psych!", I could totally see where that was coming from.

All this to say that The Strays is set in Australia. But it doesn't feel like Australia. It feels like the setting could be anywhere. Like rationally knowing Australia exists, I rationally know that books from Australia don't all need to feature kangaroos and Ned Kelly, but then I read a book set in Australia with nary one mention of a koala and I'm like "Hmmm...are we sure this is in Australia? Just because the book references Melbourne and Sydney and says a few times that they are in Australia, do I really believe this book is set in Australia?" So, again, if The Strays were to suddenly be like "Psych!", I could totally see where that was coming from.

(And, I mean, for goodness' sake, I'm Canadian, I read plenty of Can-Lit, and I hardly expect every book set in Canada that I read to feature igloos and polar bears and poutine. I feel I am somehow mentally deficient in all things Aussie. Do I need to eat more some (because I've never managed to put even a little near my mouth) Vegemite? Why can't my brain comprehend Australia? Australia, why are you so difficult?)

Framing this in a more positive light, The Strays transcends Australia and isn't regional literature. It's a compelling read of a colony of artists in the 1930s, but, unfortunately, has all the things I don't like about first novels: an outsider narrator (the reader is already the outsider; I don't need another removal for me to see through two steps removed) looking back (why not set it simply in that time frame, rather than use a flashback framing device) who views the rest of her life as somewhat inconsequential (so, again, why bother with the flashback and the little bits of her life after that? Just stay in the time frame if that was so important) with a somewhat deus ex-machina reason for getting the gang back together in the present time so that our narrator can reflect (seriously, just set it in the 1930s and be done with it) on the brilliant men surrounded by their supporting/adoring women (blehhhhhhhhh). I do not like these things. I think they weaken the novel. Luckily, the novel, especially the pretty writing, is strong enough (even with the lack of platypuses/platypii/platypodes) that the things I dislike serve as annoyances rather than deal-breakers, and, at times, the novel reads like a painting, with colour and slashes and visible brush strokes that I love. But still, I'm conflicted: did I need to read another flashback book about brilliant, abusive men who don't really get their comeuppance, no matter how lyrical the writing is and how well I could see how everything looks even though Australia is imaginary I have never been to Australia? I guess I did since I did.

Plus the font was large, and the margins wide, so I did read it quickly. Yay.

Obligatory picture of my favourite Australian book:

Yeah, it's completely unrelated, but Sometimes I Like To Curl Up In A Ball is a very cute book that I enjoy a lot.

The Strays by Emily Bitto went on sale January 3, 2017.

I received a copy free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.