Os­borne’s “Beautiful Animals” is great

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Lionel Shriver

FICTION

The globe-trot­ter Lawrence Os­borne is at­tuned to the of­ten cat­a­strophic clash of civ­i­liza­tions that a mo­bile world sets in train. One imag­ines he might en­dorse fel­low Bri­tish writer David Good­hart’s dis­tinc­tion be­tween the Some­wheres and the Any­wheres: peo­ple rooted pro­foundly in one place and cul­ture vs. peri­patetic, well-ed­u­cated elites who de­rive their only real sense of lo­ca­tion from one another’s com­pany. Os­borne is cer­tainly clued up about the blun­der­ing of deca­dent tourists amid more morally grounded lo­cals. His cyn­i­cal take on Western de­cay is piti­less, mat­ter-of-fact.

Os­borne’s riv­et­ing third novel, “The For­given,” ex­plored the dire con­se­quences of louche Euro­peans par­ty­ing in con­ser­va­tive Morocco. His new novel, “Beautiful Animals,” trans­ports us to the Greek is­land of Hy­dra, where two young women strike up a some­what hi­er­ar­chi­cal friend­ship while va­ca­tion­ing with their fam­i­lies for the sum­mer. The worldlier of the two, a few years older at 24, Naomi Co­dring­ton is the daugh­ter of a wealthy Bri­tish art dealer who has owned a house on the is­land since the 1980s. Sa­man­tha Hal­dane is the more naive and there­fore (of course) Amer­i­can.

When the foot­loose pair dis­cov­ers a Syr­ian refugee, Faoud, washed up on a de­serted beach, Naomi is de­ter­mined to make the young man their sum­mer project. But the al­tru­ism of her in­ten­tion to help him reach main­land Europe rings hol­low. She is a mis­chief-maker and idly at­tracted to Faoud, who is in­stinc­tively leery of non­greeks bear­ing gifts.

To se­cure funds to fi­nance a new life in Italy for their pet Syr­ian, Naomi pro­poses to fa­cil­i­tate his bur­glary of her own house. Though Sa­man­tha balks at be­com­ing in­volved, she has fallen un­der the savvier girl’s sway. For the reader, the iffy scheme seems un­re­lated to Naomi’s new­found so­cial con­science, and in­stead bound up with am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ships to her fa­ther and step­mother. Per­haps need­less to say, the plan goes hor­ri­bly wrong. Os­borne is a mas­ter at im­bu­ing his text with both dread and in­ex­ora­bil­ity. “Beautiful Animals” pos­i­tively drips with this-can’t-end-well.

Un­less a nov­el­ist as­sumes the kind of full-on hu­man­i­tar­ian per­spec­tive that sim­ply isn’t this author’s bag, the morally thorny Euro­pean mi­gra­tion cri­sis is dif­fi­cult to write about (if we’re still call­ing it a cri­sis; the steady flow of peo­ple traf­ficked into South­ern Europe from Africa and the Mid­dle East seems more like a new nor­mal). Os­borne’s oblique ap­proach to this sub­ject mat­ter is ideal. Only rarely is the sub­ject ad­dressed di­rectly, as when Naomi’s fa­ther de­clares, “You have to won­der whether Euro­peans are just too stupid to sur­vive now. We don’t seem to un­der­stand ob­vi­ous things that are star­ing us in the face. … If we keep them out it de­stroys them; if we let them in it de­stroys us. Do we have the stom­ach for that dilemma?”

The por­trayal of Faoud is sym­pa­thetic but un­sen­ti­men­tal. Con­fi­dent, wary and sin­gle-minded, the refugee will do what he must sur­vive (al­ways a lit­tle chill­ing). He has his Dar­winian wits about him in a way that the Western­ers no longer do. When pur­sued by the “soft of­fi­cers of Euro­pean law,” Faoud has a nat­u­ral leg up: “They, af­ter all, cared about their lives: it was a tremen­dous, per­haps fa­tal, dis­ad­van­tage.” He is ca­su­ally dis­mis­sive of Chris­tian cul­ture in Italy: “Their world didn’t mat­ter any­way - it was nearly a ruin.”

In kind, Os­borne has a good feel for the con­tempt many poor lo­cals feel for the wealthy Any­wheres on whom they de­pend for in­come. The maid at Naomi’s sum­mer home ob­serves that the Co­dring­tons “were long asleep, dulled by their sleep­ing pills and booze. Their snores could be heard through­out the house. … It was a dis­gust­ing sound, a sound com­men­su­rate with her bes­tial em­ploy­ers. … That night they were in full roar, like huge fat­tened trop­i­cal frogs.”

Os­borne is both a con­sum­mate stylist and a keen ob­server. Pro­vin­cial Ital­ian towns are “de­fi­antly mo­rose.” A walk un­der a mid­day sun is “the kind of tor­ment that only the af­flu­ent un­em­ployed would in­flict upon them­selves.” A cer­tain gen­er­a­tion of older Euro­peans “drank in a way that was now in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to younger peo­ple. For them it was like show­er­ing or tak­ing out the dog.” (In­deed, Os­borne’s 2013 nonfiction book, “The Wet and the Dry,” ad­dresses dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes to­ward al­co­hol around the globe.) His dia­logue can sim­mer with some­thing close to wis­dom: “You think there’s un­con­di­tional love, but there isn’t. The con­di­tions are ev­ery­thing.”

So let’s not mince words. This is a great book. Truly dif­fi­cult to put down, the novel ex­erts a sick­en­ing pull. Its cli­max and res­o­lu­tion will not dis­ap­point. The so­cial per­spec­tive is so­phis­ti­cated, smart and un­com­fort­able, and the story is crack­ing. Os­borne pub­lished two nov­els, in 1986 and 1990, then plunged into nonfiction and jour­nal­ism, only emerg­ing as a fiction writer again with “The For­given” in 2012. Yet com­par­isons to Gra­ham Greene and Paul Bowles might al­ready qual­ify as trite. By pub­lish­ing four nov­els in the past five years, he seems to be work­ing from a fat, tat­tered file ti­tled “Hu­man Con­di­tion: Notes,” and is mak­ing up for lost time. Lucky for us, too.

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