Stef Penney pens an accomplished story enhanced by its historical background

19 January 2024 - 09:46 By Margaret von Klemperer
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'The Beasts of Paris' by Stef Penney.
'The Beasts of Paris' by Stef Penney.
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The Beasts of Paris
Stef Penney

The setting for Stef Penney’s new novel is the turbulent year of 1871 in Paris. First besieged by the Prussian army at the climax of the Franco-Prussian war, and then living through the horrors of the rising of the Communards and their annihilation by the forces of the French government, it was a terrible time for the city and its inhabitants, one that still looms large in the national psyche. It is a bold subject to tackle because there are moments when the sheer weight of the historical events threatens to overwhelm the development of Penney’s carefully drawn characters.

There is a big cast, but there are three main figures. Anne Petitjean is the first we meet. At the beginning of the novel she is an inmate of a hospital for the insane, where, though allowed a certain amount of freedom, she is treated like part of a freak show. Canadian Lawrence Harper is escaping from a puritanical upbringing and working in a photographic studio while wrestling with his sexuality, and Ellis Butterfield, nephew of the American ambassador, is trying to drown out the horrors of the recent American Civil War, where he worked as a surgeon. All three, in their own ways, are outsiders.

All three have connections to the Paris Menagerie, where the animals, as much as the humans, are at risk from wider political events. Penney turns these creatures, particularly the big cats, into characters in their own right, held against their will in inhumane conditions and at the mercy of the human inhabitants of the city, even those few who have their welfare at heart.

Once the siege is over, there is a brief moment of something approaching normality, but then, in the latter part of the novel, the extreme horror of the Commune and its ending takes over. Penney has to balance the two strands — the political and the personal — of her story. Some lesser characters inevitably remain opaque, their fates still obscure at the end of the novel, but that does little to detract from what is an accomplished story, enhanced by the historical background which is superbly drawn. As a piece of historical fiction, The Beasts of Paris pretty well has it all.

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