Reviewed by Harriet
Stef Penney is not a prolific author – there were five years between each of her first three novels, and it’s been seven years since the publication of her last, Under a Pole Star [reviewed here]. I’ve read and enormously enjoyed all three of them, and was excited to see whether The Beasts of Paris would measure up. Spoiler – it most certainly does.
The novel starts in September 1870. France is at war with the Prussians, who have advanced on Paris and surrounded the city, which is determined to defend itself. In preparation for the siege, soldiers have been recruited, barricades have been built, grain has been stockpiled, and the city’s parks are filled with cows and sheep. But as the winter draws in, supplies dwindle and soon people are reduced to eating domestic animals and even rats. And, of course, some of the beasts that are kept in the menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes. The people are enduring terrible suffering, and when the siege ends in January 1871, disgruntled working-class radicals rise up to form a revolutionary socialist government, the Paris Commune. However, its far-thinking, anti-religious ideas have no time to be put into practice, as the commune is finally and violently suppressed during a week in May that came to be known as la semaine sanglante – the bloody week.
Against this background to this extraordinary, powerful novel, three young people struggle with their own demons as they seek ways to escape the constraints of their society. Anne Petitjean, born to a French mother and a Haitian father, has been confined to the Salpêtrière Asylum after escaping the abuse of her mother’s lover. Lawrence Harper has found work as a photographer’s assistant after leaving his native Canada for reasons partly related to his own sexuality, which is tolerated – or at least not illegal – in France. And American Ellis Butterfield, a qualified doctor and the nephew of the American Ambassador, is ambitious to become a poet: he has served as a doctor in the American Civil War and has been shockingly traumatised by what he witnessed and participated in there. The narrative swings between these three, initially as they pursue their separate lives and then, as circumstances and desires change and manifest, in relation to each other.
Although the title of the novel has a wider scope, the animals in the menagerie form a sort of nexus for many of the events that take place. Anne is powerfully drawn to Marguerite, the beautiful tigress, meets Lawrence on her secret nightly visits to the menagerie, and finds congenial employment as a housekeeper to M. Papin, the kindly aging veterinarian who is in charge of the animals. Like the characters, the beasts themselves are displaced: both are imprisoned in worlds that look on them as strange and other. As the siege progresses, some of the animals are sacrificed for food, and those that remain play a part in some tragic events during the final week of the commune.
Although the novel’s main focus is on the three central characters, many other lives are changed by the events around them. Beautiful Fanny has left her work as a nude model in the Lamy family’s photography studio to get married, but is forced to return to work for the Lamys as a maid when her husband joins the army. Later she herself will be wielding a gun among many other women at the barricades. Vincent, a young zookeeper, finds himself in charge of the menagerie and has to put himself in grave danger to save the lives of the beasts that remain in his charge. And a successful high-class butcher, who continues to thrive during the siege by offering exotic meats like ostrich, camel, giraffe and elephant, has his grand shop on the Champs Elysées burned to the ground during the bloody week that ends the commune. Indeed, the destruction of Paris itself during that week is extraordinary, and the violent, vengeful destruction of human life almost too painful to read about.
Historical fiction is a challenging genre – it has to be done really well or it becomes banal and unconvincing. Penney has handled the history superbly, weaving some real people and many true events into a fictional narrative to create a whole which is never less than completely satisfying, gripping, and often very moving. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I cried a bit towards the end, but without giving too much away, we leave the main protagonists all moving towards lives in which they can be happy and fulfilled. There’s something here for everybody: race, gender, and sexuality are all treated with sensitivity. And did I say there’s a love story too, one which manages to flourish despite the unlikely circumstances that surround it.
All in all a brilliant book, one which demonstrates the persistence of the human spirit in the face of unthinkable challenges. I won’t forget it in a hurry.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Stef Penney, The Beasts of Paris (Quercus, 2023). 978-1529421552, 496pp., hardback.
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