Monday 19 March 2018

Sun-drenched noir tale finds trouble in paradise

Fiction: Beautiful ­Animals, Lawrence ­Osborne, Hogarth, paperback, 294 pages, €14.99

Sumptous writing: Lawrence Osborne
Sumptous writing: Lawrence Osborne
Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne

Meadhbh McGrath

The beautiful animals of Lawrence Osborne's title refer to two young women: 24-year-old Naomi ­Codrington, a spoiled and resentful British lawyer, recently fired from her job at a London firm for manipulating the evidence in a politically-charged case, and Sam, a beautiful yet naïve 20-year-old American student desperate for an escape from her wholesome family. The two meet on holiday on the Greek island of Hydra, and Sam is instantly enchanted by the older girl's worldly sophistication.

Beneath the glossy surface of Hydra's ritzy social world, the refugee crisis lingers, and while the wealthy visitors are more preoccupied with scrutinising dinner menus and critiquing the local help, it eventually starts to bleed into their lives. This happens rather more immediately for Naomi and Sam, who almost literally stumble upon a wounded, starving man on the beach, seemingly a Syrian refugee washed up on the shore.

The novel doesn't attempt to galvanise readers, but it might prompt some reflection on how we engage with the refugee crisis. In an age of 'clicktivism', charity is almost never truly selfless, and that's especially true of Naomi, whose own father observes: "She ­wanted to be a Samaritan: the easiest job in the world, and perfect for the useless European middle-classes."

Naomi elects to help the handsome young man, named Faoud, yet Sam is more sceptical, wondering whether Naomi genuinely wants to help him, or if she is looking for an adventure and a means of "atoning for coming from money which (she) didn't earn".

Naomi grows fond of Faoud as he recalls travels to Paris and London, "her heart skipping a beat to find that he was more bourgeois than herself". Osborne doesn't attempt to present the 'typical' migrant, instead portraying Faoud as curiously similar to the vacationers so keen to disregard him as a "non-person". Faoud describes himself as "a ghost among ghosts", while at the same time keenly aware of how his wealth and social status set him apart. He looks on the other migrants as no more than "people with whom he shared a regrettable accent of origin".

Naomi considers sending Faoud on his way, but fears losing her hold over him: "She was the saviour and she relished the role. It made her vital in a new way. To save another person: it wasn't nothing." Instead, she opts to feed him strawberries, put him up in an abandoned hut and romanticise herself as his dashing heroine. It's a role she's used to playing, to let people know "how ashamed she was of being rich".

With the help of Sam and Carissa, the Codringtons' Greek maid, Naomi concocts a plan to exact revenge on her pompous father and stepmother and facilitate Faoud's flight to mainland Europe, but when things go badly awry, all four must bear consequences they had never imagined. Faoud flees for a crime much greater than he had intended to commit, Naomi struggles to stay in control, while Sam questions her loyalty to her new friend.

Beautiful Animals doesn't fit the mould of a typical beach thriller - it's more of a psychological character study of Naomi and her influence on those around her. Osborne crafts a rich, noirish mood in his sun-drenched tale, while offering astute observations of privilege and obscene wealth, such as when Carissa notes how "that night they were in full roar, like huge fattened tropical frogs".

Osborne's sumptuous writing compels you to slow down, yet it can verge on being overwritten, as you find yourself wading through swathes of description to reach the heart of the story. The leisurely pacing matches the languor of the island life, making it a perfect read to devour in one go on a white-hot, breezeless day.

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