Book review: The Strays of Paris

The Strays of Paris

Jane Smiley

Pan Macmillan

Review: Roshiela Moonsamy

This is a dreamy story with a number of wonderful characters, both human and animal.

A curious racehorse, Paras, escapes from her stable and after a long journey finds herself on the streets of Paris.

Despite the best efforts of her owners, the filly cannot be found.

The story unfolds in the Champ de Mars, the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower, and the streets around it.

Paras meets a German shorthaired pointer named Frida, a kind, streetwise dog whose homeless owner, Jacques, has died; a crow named Raoul; and mallards Sid and Nancy.

The presence of an animal as large as a horse, roaming freely in the city, does not go completely unnoticed, although she is careful to only walk the streets under the cover of darkness.

The Champ de Mars head gardener, Pierre, rather than report her to animal control, chooses to turn a blind eye to the gracious horse, covering her tracks by mixing her manure with soil and piling it around the tree trunks, and occasionally leaving an apple out for her.

One of the characters who gets much closer is the baker Anaïs, whom Paras starts visiting in the night and who starts preparing special food in anticipation of the horse’s visit.

However, even Anaïs isn’t always sure if Paras is real, wondering if she is an incarnation of a magical being.

Another human who notices Paras is 8-year-old Étienne who lives nearby with his great-grandmother, Madame Éveline de Mornay, who is almost 100 years old.

Étienne lures Paras into their grand old house where he cares for her. She is able to go and come as she pleases and is joined by the caring Frida, chatty Raoul and two house rats, Kurt and Conrad.

But while it appears that Étienne is looking after the horse and his great-grandmother, it is really a symbiotic relationship in which each character is in some way contributing to each other’s well-being.

Another of the “observers” in the story is the kindly storekeeper Jérôme, who allows Frida to buy vegetables with money found in a purse Paras had carried off when she escaped, and tips off Étienne when authorities come asking about a boy not attending school.

Eventually, it is Étienne who needs saving, and as for the other human characters, the mystery of how a horse could survive and go mostly unnoticed in a big city is finally revealed.

The Strays of Paris will appeal to a wide audience.

If, as an adult, you can get over the talking animals, you will enjoy this story, which moves at a slow, gentle pace, and deals with the topics of loneliness, friendship, kindness and that inevitable part of life − death.