The Strays is set in the conservative 1930's and 1940's in Australia and focuses on the family, friends and fellow artists of the painter Evan Trentham. Having no knowledge whatsoever of the man or this period of Australian history, I read it as a work of pure fiction but some of the people and events are actually based on real life.
The Trenthams - Evan, his wife Helena and their three daughters, Eva, Beatrice and Heloise - live a seemingly charmed life in their sprawling Australian homestead, particularly in the eyes of Lily, the sisters' friend who is disillusioned with her own tedious home life and ends up moving in for several months almost as an honorary daughter.
The children are largely left to their own devices with very little parental intervention and life is an almost endless cycle of parties, promiscuity, soft drugs and painting. This lack of boundaries actually turns out to be quite toxic and even destructive though, provoking the implosion of the artists' community and even the familial bonds.
One of the key events in the book (quite possibly based on real life) is Jérôme, one of the painters, eloping with not one but two of the Trentham daughters. This was already quite shocking, especially given the time period, but realising that the girls were mere teenagers - at 14 and 15, exactly the same age as my own daughter in fact - made it seem even more morally wrong and abhorrent. Seeing that the hedonistic and self-absorbed parents wait for several months before even trying to bring their daughters back home tainted my whole view of their supposedly happy, carefree lifestyle, especially when they refused to face up to their parental failings later in life.
It's a thought-provoking read that focuses on the female characters and paints a tender but ultimately damning picture of the ground-breaking artists and their life choices.
star rating : 4/5
Disclosure : I received a copy of the book in order to provide an honest review.