July 17, 2017
Lawrence Osborne’s characters tend to stumble into things: whether as a result of an accident, as in The Forgiven, or by winning big at the roulette table, as in Hunters in the Dark: as if they had stepped into the intersection of opportunity and desire, and what they heretofore envisaged only nebulously, something that couldn’t be put into words, now possessed a vocabulary and the will to act upon it.
For the just-published Beautiful Animals, the setting is the Greek island of Hydra, an inspiration also for Leonard Cohen, who owned a house there, and where he met the Marianne of his famous song. Still closed to cars, one’s luggage or shopping is hauled to their destination by way of donkey. Beautiful people have come and gone, and the summer visitors dwindle from one year to the next, but Osborne’s story is both timely and timeless, as a character points out in speaking of The Odyssey: “Odysseus is just like the refugees today…tossed on the stormy waves, destroying himself on the barren sea…. Nothing ever changes.”
A Syrian refugee, Faoud, has washed up onto the shores of Hydra, becoming an object of curiosity, a face for a sympathetic cause, someone, in the eyes of a young summer visitor, whose life, at the expense of those for whom money is as plentiful as the island’s brittle sunlight, could be vastly improved. As in Luca Guadagnino’s film A Bigger Splash, we’re in the presence of the wealthy and coddled on an island (in the movie it was Tilda Swinton and her ex-husband, played by Ralph Fiennes, on an island off the coast of Sicily), where the appearance of a refugee can provide a cause or an alibi, and where your conscience can be dropped off at the port as you head back to the mainland. As so often happens in Osborne’s novels, fate has a way of bringing people together and plunging them into what may turn out to be the greatest nightmare of their lives. Or just another bitter taste of paradise.
The main characters in Beautiful Animals are Naomi Codrington, fired from her London law firm because she’d gamed evidence to prove the innocence of a Turkish restaurant owner over an assault charge, and the American Samantha Haldane, a summer visitor accompanying her well-off American parents. Naomi’s father, a wealthy English art collector married to his second wife, thinks: “She wanted to be a Samaritan: the easiest job in the world, and perfect for the useless European middle classes.” In other words, just another moneyed do-gooder with nothing better to do. Maybe so, but it’s when Naomi catches sight of Faoud that the seed is planted.
Naomi can help Faoud; but she can also help herself: what constitutes freedom for each of them is very different, equally valuable. A refugee from the shores of gold and opulence, she sees a way out. Faoud can enter the Codrington’s house in the dead of night and take whatever he likes while her parents sleep. He can sell the goods, pocket the cash, take the car and make a better life for himself in Europe. “’My father has stolen everything he owns. He’s a master thief. You would be stealing from a thief and everything is insured. He’ll get a brand-new car out of it and won’t mind at all.’” There’s nothing in it for her: Faoud, whose complicated past remains unknown to her, can keep it all. It’s what back in the Sixties shoplifting used to be called: “redistributing the wealth.” It’s a win-win situation all around. After Naomi and Samantha insinuate themselves into Faoud’s life—sharing weed, bringing him food, renting him a tiny cottage, becoming his lifeline to a better, richer world, the plot unfolds with a kind of terrible inevitability as a plan is put together, the gears begin to move, and things go tragically wrong.
There’s something of Patricia Highsmith in this novel (as there was in Hunters in the Dark), but Osborne makes this material all his own: the exotic settings that he’s clearly familiar with, along with characters who belong in a far more compelling world than the rarified ones of Tom Ripley or, in Strangers on a Train, Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines. In Hunters in the Dark, the ghosts of the killing fields of Cambodia haunt the narrative; in Beautiful Animals it’s the refugee crisis.
Osborne, British-born, who seems to have lived everywhere most of us haven’t (he’s now based in Bangkok), writes with exceptional acuity about character, and in nearly all of his novels character is determined by setting, whether the Morocco of The Forgiven, the Cambodia of Hunters in the Dark, the casinos of Macau in Ballad of a Small Player, or, as in Beautiful Animals, with his evocative descriptions of Hydra. Subsumed by this new world, everything his characters do from that day forward will be determined by geography and custom. Believing they are free agents, they discover all too late that they’re in the grips of something entirely beyond their imagining. And the stakes are always so much higher.