Lead Review (The Beast of Paris)

  • Book: The Beasts of Paris
  • Location: Paris
  • Author: Stef Penney

Review Author: Tina Hartas

Location

Content

The Beasts of Paris by Stef Penney is set in Paris in 1870 and 1871: a time of war between France and Prussia, and of internal conflict during the citizens’ rebellion that followed. This is an unusual but satisfying novel that combines historical fiction with some very modern (yet universal) themes such as racism, sexuality and the role of women. The relationships between the characters are sensitively explored, for the most part, but some graphic sex scenes mean that this is definitely not historical fiction in the style of Jean Plaidy.

The characters are diverse, in all senses of the term, but despite their different statuses in society, their paths intersect, and their very differences make for fascinating interactions. We have Anne, who is living as an inmate of an asylum; then there’s Victor, who is a veterinarian at the Ménagerie, where exotic animals are displayed for public amusement. Fanny is a photographic model and there are various artists and writers. Two characters are foreign residents in Paris and their nationality becomes important as the war progresses: Ellis is a poet and former army surgeon, who is also the nephew of the American ambassador, while Lawrence is a photographer’s assistant from Canada.

At first, the war against Prussia seems insignificant to the residents of Paris because it’s so far away. As the conflict drags on, it begins to affect the poorest first, while the rich are able to carry on with their lives relatively normally. Eventually the siege encircles the city, the citizens are conscripted, and food begins to diminish. Things are looking bad for everyone, even the animals in the Ménagerie.

I was a little disappointed that the beasts themselves aren’t the focus of the book, except at a few key points. In a way it is hard to say what is the focus, as we shift from one scene to another and even from one battle to another. There isn’t one main character or one central location. All of them are interesting but maybe this makes for slight confusion when reading. The map at the beginning of the book is helpful, but even if you know Paris quite well you might need to refer to it to remind yourself where the action has travelled to.

The descriptions of Paris and its surroundings are as artistic as the Impressionist paintings that were created in the same period – the late 19th century. The book is beautifully written. The setting was a time when the slums of Paris were being replaced by Haussmann’s boulevards and ambitious architecture – the classic buildings that we associate with the city today. Some locations that are now considered key Parisian tourist attractions were then on the outskirts of the city and today’s suburbs were then little more than villages outside the city walls. The geography is important because it influences the course of the battles that the book describes.

The Beasts of Paris is a modern take on an important period in French history and it makes for an entertaining and informative read. Recommended.

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