At the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club event in June, Emily Bitto will discuss the inspiration behind her debut novel, The Strays, which tells the story of a group of progressive artists in 1930s Melbourne, seen through the eyes of a young girl. We’re excited to publish an excerpt from her beautiful novel. 

I once read that the heart’s magnetic field radiates up to five metres from the body, so that whenever we are within this range of another person our hearts are interacting. The body’s silent communications with other bodies are unmapped and mysterious, a linguistics of scent, colour, flushes of heat, the dilating of a pupil. Who knows, what we call instant attraction may be as random as the momentary synchrony of two hearts’ magnetic pulses.

Eva’s mother believed in past life connections, that two souls can be twinned over and over, playing out different roles so that in one life they may be mother and daughter, in another husband and wife, in a third dear friends. I only know that throughout my life I have felt an instinctive attraction to particular people, male and female, romantic and platonic; attraction inexplicable at the time but for a certain mutual recognition. It was this way with Eva, although we were only eight years old.

I remember that day, after it all fell apart, when Eva came to me through the misty garden so that her red coat bled into view from white to pale rose to scarlet, the pride I felt. ThatI was the one she turned to. That I could give her what her own family could not. All those years as part of the Trenthams’ lives. Feeling loved, but never needed, never family. I am an only child; it is my lot to be envious, even grasping, to long for the bonds that tie sisters together, the fearless, unthinking acceptance that we are social creatures, pack animals, that there is never, truly, the threat of being alone.


I am sitting outside at the wooden table marking student essays when I hear the tidy creak and clap as the letter slot opens and shuts its mouth. I shuffle the papers into a pile, set them on a chair and walk through the open French doors, across the lounge room and down the hallway, lit cobalt by the panels of glass that flank the front door. The envelope is narrow and rust-coloured, shot through with metallic strands. Inside is an invitation that I recognise immediately, to the opening of Evan Trentham’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria. Tucked behind it is a sheet of notepaper folded into three. I open it and see Eva’s loose sloping handwriting, unchanged, so that some part of my mind slips, unsure if I am a middle-aged woman standing in her hallway in blue light, or if I am a girl again.

Beyond the front door I hear a man and a child walk past the gate, the man’s head swimming, rippled, across the panel of glass, the child’s voice falling indistinct from a high note like the carol of a magpie. I turn and walk back through the blue tunnel of the past towards the clear kitchen, reading as I go.

Dear Lily,

It has been so long. Far too long. I know it’s difficult to keep people in our lives, and I know that what happened in the past has made it hard for us to be in contact, although I’ve thought about you often over the years and have started letters to you several times. I’ve thought of you more since Heloise’s death, and now that the grief has eased a little bit, I’m determined not to let it go any longer. Being back in the country for Dad’s retrospective seems a good opportunity to reconnect, although I’ll understand if you don’t want to after all this time. Mum and Dad would of course love to have you at the opening, and for me it would be wonderful to see you again, dear friend of my childhood.

I know you are in contact with Bea, and she has my dates and details.

Please do come.

Love always,

I brace my body against the edge of the sink and pull my eyes up from the page. It is so many years since the last time I saw her. Three full decades at least. And now, Eva has come back to me like a good deed returned. Already I am imagining how it would be to see her again, and I become aware of that old compulsive pain I have pressed like a bruise again and again throughout the years.


Kill Your Darlings First Book Club: The Strays
Wednesday June 11
6.30 for 7pm

The First Book Club is free, but bookings are required.
RSVP to [email protected] to confirm your place.

Happy Valley: Design, Books, Art
294 Smith St

Collingwood 3066