The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
For those who don’t know their French animal noises (NB: I cheated and looked them up) above we have a neigh, woof, caw, quack and squeak. We can only hear these onomatopeic words, but the animals in Jane Smiley’s new novel can understand each other perfectly.
Smiley hasn’t written a novel for adults since finishing her Last Hundred Years Trilogy family saga in 2015 with Golden Age. But she has been busy producing a series of horse novels for young adults in 2018-2020, following on from a previous set of five YA horse novels she wrote some years earlier.
I hadn’t realised that Smiley was such a horse fanatic, although of course many of her novels set on farms have featured them amongst other livestock. My last encounter with Smiley’s work was reading the fabulous A Thousand Acres, followed by Moo in the 1990s when they were published, but I know that Rebecca and Victoria enjoyed the first two volumes of the Last Hundred Years Trilogy, reviewing Some Luck and Early Warning for Shiny.
The Strays of Paris (published in the USA as Perestroika in Paris) is a very different animal to her other adult novels though; it’s an entertainment, and presumably at least partly written during lockdown. Let me tell you a bit about it…
Perestroika is a three-year-old thoroughbred filly racehorse, her name shortened to Paras. She enjoys racing and one day, after winning her race at Auteuil, the Paris racecourse in the Bois de Boulogne, west of the city centre, she finds her stall door left open at the end of the day, her groom has gone to get the horse box. She is ‘a curious filly’ so off she trots for an explore, taking her groom’s purse with her, recognising it as a precious thing. She loves the long grass in the bois:
It has to be said that that the grass was delicious–sweet, fragrant, flavorsome, and a little fruity-tasting. A mouthful was excellent chewing–not too light, but not at all tough, like hay. And it was nice to bite off the living stalks. She walked along, nibbling, occasionally trotted, occasionally kicked up her heels, and even reared twice, just for the fun of it.
For now we leave Paras, gaily trotting across the Bois towards central Paris, and meet Frida, a German shorthaired pointer. She had belonged to Jacques, a homeless busker, but he didn’t wake up one day and they took him away. Now she lives around the Place du Trocadéro, pretending she still has an owner to evade being picked up by the gendarmerie. There are pools to bathe in, and plenty of thrown away food.
… when she saw Paras by the light of dawn, cropping grass inside the fence of the Place du Trocadéro, Frida knew that they were going to be friends. […]
Frida said, ‘What’s your name?’
The horse said, ‘They call me Paras, but my real name is Perestroika, by Moscow Ballet out of Mapleton, by Big Spruce. I am a descendant of Northern Dancer and Herbager, and I go all the way back to Saint Simon on my dam’s side.’
They get to know each other a bit, and Frida, who knows things, finds the purse is full of pieces of paper that she’s seen exchanged for things (the groom had won on her bets). So horse and dog bond, and the dog finds a nice secluded grassy bit behind a hedge on the Champ de Mars for Paras to sleep.
Soon we will meet Raoul the raven, Sid and Nancy a pair of long-married mallards, and much later Kurt the rat. All befriend Paras, who amazingly for such a large creature manages to stay hidden during the day, although the gardeners know there’s a horse somewhere when they pick up her droppings for the roses–but they never see her! Meanwhile, Frida uses some of the money to buy apples and carrots etc for them, the shopkeeper Pierre assumes an invalid sends out their dog for supplies, and is scrupulous with the change too. Anaïs, a baker in a nearby road, can’t believe her eyes when she sees a horse trotting by her bakery at dawn and gives her some oats. Between Pierre and Anaïs, Frida and Paras keep themselves fed as it gets colder.
It is the arrival of a lonely young boy on the scene, that gets them a winter home. Étienne is about nine and lives with his ancient great-grandmother in a large, old house nearby. Nearly blind and nearly 100, she doesn’t notice when Étienne brings the animals home, using one of the big old rooms for them, and the yard; this is where we meet Kurt the rat, (straight out of Ratatouille). Étienne isn’t going to school, he’s looking after his great-gran, and now the animals, surely it’s just a matter of time before she dies and/or the French social services catch up with him.
Meanwhile, we also follow Delphine, Paras’ stable manager as she continues to search for the lost thoroughbred. She, nor Paras’ owner can’t believe the horse just disappeared, Delphine in particular has a feeling she’s somewhere close.
I did like the way that the observant animals make sense of the world full of humans that they live in. I particularly liked Raoul the raven philosopher. Sid and Nancy meanwhile are very much a squabbling husband and wife comedy duo, but largely, despite the universal animal understanding, Smiley avoids the trap of over-anthropomorphising the animals.
The Strays of Paris is a charming feelgood book, always pleasant, full of nice characters–both human and animal, but it lacked jeopardy. Fable though the book is, it is inconceivable that a horse could live wild in the Champ de Mars, and neither Paras nor Frida, ever seemed in any real danger of being caught by the wrong people. Even in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, Lady gets taken by the dog catcher! Instead, Smiley stays firmly on the side of Gallic whimsy throughout. With its tricolour covers and Parisian map endpapers, The Strays of Paris is a thoroughly nice book, a cosy read, but like Paras who gets an itch for freedom, it might make you wish for the end of lockdown even sooner. (7/10)
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Jane Smiley, The Strays of Paris, Mantle, Feb 2021, hardback, 288 pages.