I don’t usually talk about cover art of the books that I review but just this once, I have to say that the Australian cover of Stef Penney’s excellent historical novel The Beasts of Paris does not do it justice. Some of the action of The Beasts of Paris is set in and around the Paris menagerie, so a bright, cheery cover replete with historical drawings of animals is not out of the question. But this almost feels like a Trojan Horse – the story’s engine is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, the siege of Paris by the Prussians and the coup which followed known as the Paris Commune. The Beasts of Paris is a powerful historical novel, and there are some bright moments, but often very little cheery about it.
The action in The Beasts of Paris centres around three main characters – Anne, a patient at a women’s asylum who is misused by the doctors there as a form of entertainment, Lawrence, a Canadian who works as a photographer for a local family that has a line in erotic postcards, and Ellis, the nephew of the American ambassador who was a battlefield surgeon during the American Civil War. The narrative follows these three and their friends and acquaintances as Paris comes under siege during the Franco-Prussian war and later during an uprising against the government by the soldiers who fought in that war that led to the creation of the short-lived Paris commune. The actual beasts, including a magnificent tiger called Marguerite, that live in the Paris menagerie where Anne comes to work as a maid, come under threat in both of these conflicts.
At first it seems odd that Penney focusses so much on two foreigners, but these characters allow her to stay in the city during the conflict when many young men either joined the army or fled. And the narrative point of view goes out much further than the central three to include Victor, the lovesick veterinarian at the menagerie, all of the members of the Lamy family with whom Lawrence lives, and the artists with whom Ellis and Lawrence spend time, and their partners. In the end it is the sum total of the lives of all these characters that provides the heart and the light in a novel that often goes to some very dark and bleak places.
The Beasts of Paris is a compelling and often tragic historical novel of a tumultuous time in the history of one of the world’s great cities. It is a darkly engaging tale full of privation, death and depravity but also hope, love and a sense of community. And while the animals of the menagerie do play a role it is a story in which no doubt deliberately, and not unexpectedly, the real beasts of Paris turn out to be human ones.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Wolves of Winter (Dan Jones) – book review
- Shrines of Gaiety (Kate Atkinson) – book review
- The Darkest Sin (DV Bishop) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.