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Book Reviews Emily Bitto’s The Strays, Graham Jackson’s The Jane Loop and Simon Roy’s Kubrick Red, reviewed

The Strays

By Emily Bitto

Twelve, 304 pages, $32

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On her first day at a new school, her working-class parents having recently moved due to the Depression, eight-year-old Lily is besotted by classmate Eva. Indeed, when Eva takes her home, Lily is charmed by the bohemian vivacity of the entire Trentham household: avant-garde painter Evan, heiress Helena, their other two daughters and their growing community of "strays" – painters taking harbour from 1930s Australia's stifling cultural conservatism. The Trenthams' laissez-faire child-rearing allows Lily to slip easily into the family. But when a rift develops in the volatile community of painters, Lily and Eva are on either side of a widening chasm. Lily is an observant child, a stranger fascinated by the Trenthams' artistic milieu, but The Strays, which won the Stella Prize when originally published in Australia, is more than a period piece. As Lily considers her childhood friend from the distance of five decades, this remarkably sure-footed debut novel becomes a study of the depths and loss of female friendship.

The Jane Loop

By Graham Jackson

Cormorant Books, 400 pages, $22

Until the construction of Toronto's second subway line in the late 1960s, the western terminus of the Bloor streetcar at Jane Street marked a psychological border. To the east, the streetcar, the bright lights and hubbub of downtown. To the west, the bus through sleepy suburbs, an escape from the city's perceived seaminess. Passengers transferred between bus and streetcar at the Jane Loop, a locus of personal significance for 16-year-old Neil in Graham Jackson's debut novel. The Jane Loop describes Neil's dawning attraction to men and sexual awakening during the summer of 1962. At a time when homosexuality was still criminalized in Canada, Neil's is not a coming-out narrative of escape – he still has two years of high school. Instead, Jackson, who studies male-on-male intimacy from a Jungian perspective, explores the historical sexual geography of Toronto's inner suburbs, finding deep wells of meaning beneath the veneer of hetero contentment. An unabashedly erotic coming-of-age story bringing an era often written off as staid to vibrant sexual life.

Kubrick Red

By Simon Roy, translated by Jacob Homel

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Anvil Press, 160 pages, $18

On first viewing, The Shining barely coheres: It's hard to say why exactly events in the film happen as they do. Yet long after, it remains deeply unsettling. Mother and child survive, but the axe-wielding father's death offers no finality. When Simon Roy was a boy, he caught The Shining on television. The deluge of blood made no impression, but when Dick Hollorann asked in slow-mo voice-over "How'd you like some ice cream, Doc?" young Simon was sure the hotel chef spoke directly to him. Since that moment of being scared witless, Roy has watched Kubrick's film obsessively, finding new meaning in it and dark parallels with his own story. Just as Kubrick used Stephen King's novel to talk about the horrors of genocide revisited on the present, in Kubrick Red Roy analyses the film to exorcise a crime in his family's past. An atypical memoir tracing genealogies of violence – as startling as the film that inspired it.

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