France has no shortage of interesting historical periods, but Paris during the siege of 1870–71 is a particularly good setting for a work of fiction. A harsh winter, rebellion, civil dispute and brutal repression all envelop the ‘city of light’ in Stef Penney’s fourth novel.
The book follows a cast of characters navigating the tumultuous events of the siege: Ellis, an unruly American war doctor turned drunkard poet; Anne, a striking Creole servant; and Lawrence, a smutty photographer with grand ambitions. The politics of the bourgeoisie, the toils of the working class and queer love come to the fore as the characters meander the streets and cafes, their lives intertwining. They have passionate – at times crassly described – sex and drink copious amounts of wine.
The Beasts of Paris is saturated with allusions to classic literature: we see hints of Hugo’s Marius at the barricade and Tolstoy’s Pierre taken prisoner, for example. Penney’s novel is an easy, enjoyable read, with smatterings of history and culture and enough sex and debauchery to keep the reader