Lawrence Osborne – Beautiful Animals

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Lawrence Osborne – Beautiful Animals

Summertime, best to spend on the Greek island of Hydra where the Codringtons possess a villa up on the hill. Yet, while the art collector Jimmy and his second wife Phaine are relaxed, Jimmy’s daughter Naomi seems to have fled London where she just lost her job under mysterious circumstances. First timers on the island are the American family Haldane who enjoy themselves among other compatriots. Their daughter Samantha, slightly younger than Naomi, is soon impressed by the English young woman who not only knows every corner of the island, but who is also self-confident and slightly intimidating. One day, they meet a young man, obviously one of the refugees from the Middle East. Sam would prefer to retreat and not to make contact whereas Naomi’s interest is aroused. For days, they meet him repeatedly until Naomi, out of ennui, draws up a plan of how to support the poor refugee: her family is super-rich, so getting rid of a couple of things in their house does not harm anybody. With the help of the housekeeper, the Arab is to break in and rob the Codringtons. Yet, the scheme does not work out as planned and the girls suddenly have to think of what to do with two bodies.

Lawrence Osborne’s novel starts like the perfect summer read. He depicts the atmosphere of the island in a colourful and authentic way. How the people move around, how relaxed everybody seems to be, but also the way in which the local people slightly stay away from the holidaymakers. The girls spend their days in the water, enjoying the sun – it’s almost too perfect. With the appearance of the refugee, the tone changes and we get to see another side of Naomi. This is where the novel starts to become really interesting.

It is especially this character that is fascinating to observe. She can be the loving daughter – she plays this role perfectly for her father who is aware of it, but on vacation he can ignore negative thoughts and he can still see his wife in the girl. Her stepmother Phaine is less easy to impress, but here, Naomi chooses the open confrontation. Towards the islanders, she is rather cold-shouldered and arrogant. She makes use of the people just as her needs demand it, she openly exploits the housekeeper and forces her to become an accomplice. In contrast, Sam has an innocent air, she is a bit naive and quickly impressed. Thus, she easily becomes Naomi’s victim and is blackmailed by her. Only when it is too late, Sam learns that people on the island consider Naomi possessed, even demonized. Naomi herself knows exactly what she is doing and why she treats people in the way she does:

“It was just an attraction. It was a matter of gravity. It was her influence over them that was attractive too, their reluctant malleability. She couldn’t understand why people were like that.“

She makes use of them simply because she can. When the situation gets out of hand, she keeps calm and manages everything. There is no regret, not even a tear – considering the fact that she has lost her father, she seems to be really cold-blooded here. As a gifted liar, she does not mean to much effort for her to set up a story. Just like the mythological Hydra, Naomi is some kind of poisonous serpent and no loss is a real defeat. Sam, on the contrary, will be haunted her whole life.

The story around Naomi is really enthralling and her behaviour and manipulation repellent at the same time. When the focus shifted away from her to the refugee fleeing from Hydra, it therefore became a bit uninteresting for me. Even though this part is important and definitely full of suspense, it was more centred around the action and less around the character.

It is often said that the initial sentence of a novel is most decisive. Here, however, in my opinion, it’s the opposite. Lawrence Osborne find a remarkable closing of the novel which concentrates much of the story in just three sentences:

“Life was full of such people. One didn’t know anything about them, even though they occupied a position of utmost importance in one’s life for a time. They were like shooting starts, flaring up for a brilliant moment, lighting up the sky even for a few lingering seconds, then disappearing forever.“