The disturbing threat offered by an outsider to the status quo is a familiar and effective literary device, and British author Lawrence Osborne employs it twice over in his latest – and compulsive – novel, Beautiful Animals.
The status quo is the expat community on the island of Hydra, a Greek enclave of the arty and bohemian probably best known as the hideout where American singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote many of his early songs, the famous So Long Marianne among them. But the days when Cohen and Marianne lived in a simple whitewashed fisherman’s cottage rented for a handful of drachmas have long gone, and Osborne’s new bohemians are for the most part rich and self-satisfied poseurs.
Prominent among them is Jimmie Codrington, who has owned a house on the island for many years and his daughter, Naomi, has spent much of her childhood there.
For her, the summer is much like any other, spent in a state of mild hostility towards her father – until she meets the younger, beautiful and American Samantha Haldane, and the two become inseparable. For the first quarter of the book, Osborne explores the power balance of their relationship: the ingenue Sam led on, fascinated, charmed and to some degree manipulated by the older Naomi.
The second disruptive outsider is an immigrant/refugee the women discover washed up on an isolated beach. Faoud rapidly becomes “a cause” for Naomi, whose sympathies have already been established with her dismissal from a law firm in London for tampering with evidence. Naomi is on the side of the angels, as she sees it, enacting a “small shift in the balance of power towards the weak”. And she enlists Sam as her partner in an enterprise intended to do just that.
It would involve too many spoilers to detail much more of the plotline, so suffice it to say that what at first appears to be a sensitive and generally convincing exploration of the relationship between the two women, and the coming together of their two very different worlds, develops rapidly into something rather more sinister before morphing entirely into an out-and-out thriller.
Osborne has been referred to more than once as the new Grahame Greene. I suspect this is in part due to the settings of his books which, alongside Hydra, include Macau, Paris, and Bangkok (where he now lives).
Another possible similarity with Greene, it occurs to me, is Osborne’s interest in the morality and idealism of his protagonists. Naomi rightly despises her father’s affluent complacency but her attempts to right what she sees as wrongs are naive, and her idealism is ultimately destructive (rather like Alden Pyle in Greene’s 1955 classic The Quiet American).
It is also to a degree self-motivated, something swiftly noticed by Sam who comes to resent “the relentless charity-worker passion of the older girl, in which to boot she didn’t quite believe”. Why the determination to make a stranger into a moral cause, Sam wonders?
There is of course another twist here: A moral cause is a much simpler and more straightforward thing than the actual human being who is its intended beneficiary. Faoud only too quickly proves the point that human beings are messier and more complicated than causes.
The transition of Beautiful Animals from holiday “womance” to thriller is a slightly uneasy one but that did not take away from my enjoyment.
Neither did the somewhat uneven quality of the writing. Very early on in my reading I was excited by the unexpected acuity of, “It was the banter of people of similar social standing subtly divided by a common language” but such moments proved rare. Much of the rest of the novel is just good, solid workmanlike prose, but it is none the worse for that.
Where Osborne really excels is in his description and evocation of place. Hydra comes alive in these pages, a beautiful island of dazzling light and heat, of butterflies and fig trees and olive groves, of busy harbour restaurants and of barren rocky spaces. Quite enchanting.
I have no hesitation in recommending Beautiful Animals. It is gripping and absorbing, and the intricacies of the relationships and the pitfalls of its protagonists’ simplistic morality are well worth exploring.
Almost perfect, then, for a thought-provoking holiday read.
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Publisher: Hogarth, contempory fiction