‘Penney, whose detailed and evocative novels have been set in such inhospitable places as the Arctic Circle, places her current saga in what might, initially, seem to be a more pleasant location: Paris. There, the lives of the working class and the bourgeoisie alike are unsettled by the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The horrors of war continue even after a peace treaty is signed, as former members of the National Guard take control of Paris and run it as a revolutionary Commune. The end days of the failing Commune are marked by violence and acts of war committed upon French people by their fellow citizens.
Caught up in the violence and mayhem are the well-drawn characters of Penney’s sprawling chronicle of love, loss, and self-discovery. Two young gay men—a Canadian and an American—seek love and recognition amid the carnage. A young woman of Haitian heritage combats the effects of abuse and marginalization in her painstaking journey to self-determination. Personal relationships create bonds across the class boundary dividing a housemaid and her mistress.
As the intense human drama unfolds, Penney illuminates a parallel civilization living within the embattled city walls: that of the animals of the zoo within the Jardin des Plantes. The fates of many of the creatures are distressing, but others serve as emblems of survival in a city wracked by violence motivated by politics far removed from the majesty of those residents of the fauverie. (The character of the zoo’s primary veterinarian is the subject of some moral scrutiny as well.) The real beasts of Penney’s gripping account may actually reside in apartment buildings.
Penney’s portrait of a city in flames honors the traditions of historical fiction while realistically enlivening the genre.’