We humans like to imagine that we know what our animal friends are thinking, but in Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley actually burrows into the craniums of a menagerie that includes a horse, a dog, a raven, some rats and the humans they interact with, resulting in a remarkable novel that splits the difference between Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm.
At the outset, a careless trainer leaves a stall unlocked, and the curious filly Paras (short for Perestroika) wanders away from the racetrack and into the City of Lights. Paras knows the things a thoroughbred would know—her lineage, for instance—but not much else. In the city, Paras meets a worldly dog named Frida, who has been forced to fend for herself since her owner went missing. Like any street survivor, Frida knows how to avoid the gendarmes and which tricks will con treats from the citizenry.
The adventure shifts into high gear when the pair is introduced to a raven, Sir Raoul Corvus Corax, whom Smiley imbues with intelligence, twitchiness and a certain French je ne sais quoi. With winter approaching, Frida and Paras face some crucial decisions regarding housing and food. While neither is equipped with the capacity for long-term logistical planning, their animal instincts kick in, propelling them to a surprising conclusion.
To call this book “charming” might be damning it with faint praise, but Smiley has created an otherworldly universe in which her makeshift animal family supports one another in an environment that, while not necessarily hostile, is certainly hazardous. Perestroika in Paris takes its place alongside the likes of Through the Looking-Glass, in that it will reward both precocious young readers and their parents with a sense of wonder and whimsy.