I treated myself to The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley, feeling in need of a comfort read. I seem to be gravitating to books involving animals at the moment. I’ve not read Jane Smiley since my university days, when I incorporated her Pulitzer winning novel A Thousand Acres into one of my Shakespeare exams. The cover of the book gives off The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse vibes. The inky illustrations and similar gaggle of animals bring echoes of Charlie Mackesy, which is no bad thing.
The Strays of Paris follows a random collection of animals that befriend each other on the streets and parks of Paris. Paras is a young horse who escapes her race stall and roams her way to the city. Here she encounters Frida, a German short-haired pointer who is grieving the loss of her homeless owner, Jacques. Overseeing matters is Raoul the raven, who isn’t short of observations on the hierarchy of birds. Sid and Nancy, the ducks who reside at the Champ de Mars pond bring a humorous snapshot of married migratory life. Later we also meet Kurt the rat, who longs for a bigger life and one which involves a mate.
Frida is cautious, wary of capture by the police or animal control. She is street smart from her years of being homeless, and keeps Paras safely tucked from view in the hedges and overhanging trees. The inquisitive young horse only roams at night. However, as time passes it is clear that they have been spotted. Etienne is a young and lonely boy who lives with his elderly deaf-blind great grandmother. He befriends the curious horse and an eccentric life begins for many of the creatures at the sprawling town house where he lives.
This is very much a gentle comfort-read, perfect for animal lovers of all ages. The story ambles along and the animal characters come to take stock of their lives. Paras needs to decide if she wants a city life, or a life of racing. Frida tries to learn to trust humans and evade capture, while being ever resourceful in keeping them all fed.
The knowledge that Etienne will soon be orphaned and what will become of him and the animals, looms over the book. However, this is as dramatic as the storyline gets. Largely, it is a sweet story of lost souls finding each other in a big lonely city. This includes not just our main cast, but other side characters including Pierre the park attendant, and Anais the baker.
There is very little that is taxing about this book. If you are in need of an uncomplicated heart-warming story this could be the one for you. As a child that loved reading about animals, I know I would have loved this book. Jane Smiley has written several horse-based young adult books that would make great additional reading for young readers. Besides some of the French words, (largely locations which are included on the inside cover map), this would be suitable for ages 9+.