Paras is a spirited young racehorse living in a stable in the French countryside. That is until one afternoon when she pushes open the gate of her stall and, travelling through the night, arrives quite by chance in the dazzling streets of Paris.
She soon meets a German shorthaired pointer named Frida, two irrepressible ducks and an opinionated crow, and life amongst the animals in the city’s lush green spaces is enjoyable for a time. But everything changes when Paras meets a human boy, Etienne, and discovers a new, otherworldly part of Paris: the secluded, ivy-walled house where the boy and his nearly one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother live quietly and keep to themselves. As the cold weather of Christmas nears, the unlikeliest of friendships blooms between human and animals.
But how long can a runaway horse live undiscovered in Paris? And how long can one boy keep her all to himself? Charming and beguiling in equal measure, Jane Smiley’s novel celebrates the intrinsic need for friendship, love and freedom, whoever you may be . . .
From Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, The Strays of Paris is a captivating story of a group of extraordinary animals – and one little boy – whose lives cross paths in Paris.
I am a huge fan of Jane Smiley, and A Thousand Acres was one of the first books to make me think seriously about the idea of becoming a writer myself, so I was utterly delighted when Camilla Elworthy kindly sent me a beautiful copy of her latest book. As you can see from the blurb, this book is…different.
I’m going to come out and say right now that I have absolutely NO problem with anthropomorphic animals at all. The very first story I ever wrote was about a pride of lions who, let me tell you, went through some STUFF. (This was at least a year before The Lion King came out, by the way, just saying.) I am all in favour of whimsical tales of talking animals, so even though the premise came as a slight surprise, it didn’t take me long to hop on board. There is of course a certain amount of buying into the concept that has to be done, but I honestly found it a relief and a joy to leave cynicism at the door and enter into this strangely calming world for a few hours. I was entranced by Paras, the racehorse whose escape from her stall is not so much a daring break-out as an idly curious wander; Frida the cautious street-dwelling dog; Raoul the raven with his lofty proclamations – and later in the book, Kurt, the rat who dreams of one day finding a mate.
The city of Paris is beautifully depicted in the novel; you can smell the wafted scents from the bakeries and picture the Tour all lit up at night. It is the perfect setting for such a whimsical, dreamlike story, and Smiley leans into the French romanticism of it all with enthusiasm. I could practically hear the accordion music as I read. The whole vibe of the book is gentle and soothing; there is a strong emotional core, especially once the boy Etienne enters the story, but true peril hangs back – the stakes are never raised too high, and danger is always a vague idea rather than a real threat. Smiley is such a skilled writer that the characters quickly become established in all their complex, quirky glory, and I really liked the nuanced differences between the ways the different species view their environment. Paras is always on the look-out for a tasty morsel, nibbling and munching her way around the city. Frida, her senses heightened by her years on the street with Jaques, has a distrust of humans that creates some of the more tense moments in the book. Raoul is hilarious – his superior, pretentious monologues were one of my favourite bits of the novel. And Kurt, the rat who only wants to be out in the world to seek his mate, is a lovely character. Etienne’s story is tinged with sadness, but the joy he takes in bonding with the animals is beautiful.
This novel is not one for hardened cynics, but if, like so many of us, you are feeling bruised and battered by the harsh reality of the past year, The Strays of Paris provides a wonderful respite. I felt bathed in nostalgia, taken back to my childhood when I devoured endless stories of intelligent animals overcoming the odds. This book feels to me like a brilliant writer has decided to write exactly the book that will most please themselves, an escape and a bit of an indulgence, a world of kindness and small acts of generosity. And it’s a world that is an absolute pleasure to retreat into. This is a warm bubble bath of a book, self-care in novel form, and I felt refreshed and restored after reading it.