Book review: The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

I have long been a fan of Jane Smiley. Her work has never failed to captivate me. The versatility and scope of her writing has never failed to surprise me. So when Camilla Elworthy sent me a beautiful copy of Jane’s latest work The Strays of Paris, I was extremely excited.

I have been saving this book for a quiet space, away from online teaching and the slight chaos of home learning. A time to savour what I expected to be a treat.

And in true Jane Smiley fashion I was surprised. This book was not what I was expecting. And it is all the more charming for that. In a time when all norms feel out of our reach, this novel will ask you to suspend your disbelief just one more time, but in the most beautiful way.

Step onto the streets of Paris. You will find yourself in the company of a young runway racehorse called Paras, a sophisticated and street wise dog called Frida and a worldly old Raven called Raoul. They move through the busy streets unseen by most, not because they aren’t real but because most of the cities inhabitants have simply forgotten how to ‘see’.

But there are those who aren’t completely closed off to what might be happening in the city they call home. Jerome, the grocer who serves the dog each day, accepting her presence and never questioning where she might live and who she might belong to. Anais, the baker who feeds the horse in the early mornings, simply marvelling at her grace and beauty. And Pierre, the park keeper who knows the animals are roaming in his park, but merely observes with mild curiosity and wonder.

All these ‘Strays of Paris’ both human and otherwise come together through the story of one small boy. Living with his aged Great Grandmother on the Rue Marinoni, Etienne is the most accepting of all. And it is the relationships that develop in and around this great, dilapidated house that will ultimately save them all.

This book is a gentle tale, a modern fable of what happens when we open our eyes to the unexpected and what might just be hiding in plain sight. Filled with character and humour, joy and sadness this charming tale will take you out of lockdown and far away to the streets of one of the most magical cities in the world. But make sure you look with eyes wide open, because you never know what you might see.

Rachel x

Book Review : The Animals of Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

Who doesn’t love a beautiful book?

And they don’t come more beautiful, or indeed unique than The Animals of Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey, published earlier this year by Mantle Books. There was much cover gazing and stroking going on before I even got to the prose. And then you have to tear yourself away from the gorgeous end papers…

But if you can run the gauntlet of the book’s physical beauty, and you are looking for a story with a healthy dose of light and shade, then this book will be just what you are looking for.

The story is set right at the beginning of World War Two, when London is preparing for the worst. In an effort to preserve it’s treasures the National History Museum is moving to the country, to Lockwood Manor to be exact. Over seeing the move is Hetty. Recently promoted to Director of the collection, she is keen to prove her worth. Fastidious to the point of obsession, Hetty is determined that this move will be a success and that she will keep the taxidermy collection safe, whatever circumstances might throw at them.

Having made small mistakes in the past that continue to haunt her, Hetty is determined that, she will make a success of the museum’s wartime home.

But Lockwood Manor is a strange place. It’s owner, Lord Lockwood; the ‘Major’, is a brusque and domineering man. Successful, with more than a streak of ruthlessness, he is used to getting his own way. Also living in the house is his daughter Lucy; beautiful, but fragile following the death of both her mother and grandmother in a recent car accident.

It isn’t long before Hetty finds the museum is under attack. Animals go missing, are damaged and the house seems to emit a general air of threat from it’s very being.

Both Hetty and Lucy have endured difficult childhood’s. Hetty was repeatedly neglected and rejected by her adoptive parents, Lucy’s mother suffered from reoccurring bouts of mental illness and she was often caught in the crossfire of her parents volatile relationships.

Both woman are have been left scarred and seem to be struggling to find their own place in the world . Previously friendless, they are drawn to each other, finding a close connection neither has experienced before.

But can this growing bond overcome the malevolent atmosphere of Lockwood Manor? Is Lord Lockwood merely protective of his grieving daughter, or is his concern motivated by his need to control? And what really lies behind the strange occurrences in the house? Is there a supernatural presence stalking the halls or are it’s secrets bound up in something closer to home but all together darker?

The setting of this novel, right at beginning of World War Two seems a perfect reflection of the uncertainty and fear with the Manor it’s self. The world is changing and those both within and without the Manor are struggling to keep pace.

In the two female characters of Hetty and Lucy we see two woman who both feel they have disappointed by the standards of their age. Neither have married, and both feel themselves judged by the men around them. Both express self doubt, but both ultimately question whether the conventional path society expects them to follow is right for them. These women are complex, and skilfully portrayed as such.

Running through the novel is the feeling of change; the feeling that old norms are beginning to crumble and things that have hidden in plain sight will be revealed.

This novel is truly a thing of beauty, both in style but most importantly in substance. Step into Lockwood Manor. You won’t regret it.

Rachel x