Lawrence Osborne – The Glass Kingdom

Lawrence Osborne – The Glass Kingdom

What could be a good place to hide for some time? Bangkok it is Sarah resolves after she has stolen $200.000 from her former employer in New York. In the anonymous building “The Kingdom” she hopes to spend some weeks alone to have the situation cool down. Soon, she gets to know some other tenants, Mali, a half-Thai girl whom Sarah can never fully grasp. And there is the Chilean Ximena, a chef who dreams of her own restaurant whereas Natalie lives the life of a rich wife and sees Bangkok only as a short stop before moving to a better place. Even though most of the people keep to themselves, secrets move fast within the walls of the glass skyscraper and it does not take too long for Sarah to rouse her neighbours’ suspicions and interest.

I have been a huge fan of Lawrence Osborne’s novels for some years. Not only do his settings vary enormously – Morocco, Greece, Mexico, now Thailand – but he also creates highly interesting characters whom he confronts with challenging situations they, on the one hand, provoked themselves but which, on the other, unexpectedly get highly complicated without an actual good way out. Thus, he brings out the worst of human nature.

At first, Sarah seems a bit lost and you feel sympathy for her, but just until you learn which reckless behaviour brought her to the strange house. Yet, only for a short time do those negative feelings towards the protagonist linger since you soon realise that she is too naive and trusting for the world she entered. All other characters behave highly suspiciously and it is obvious that the young American will easily fall prey to them even though they are all quite diverse and aim at different things, whom their victim will be is more than obvious.

Just as the outer world is shaken by a political turmoil, also the inner world of The Kingdom seems to crumble. Decision have to be made and options have to be weighed quickly. Cleverly, Osborne builds increasing suspense and shows those sides of human character you never wanted to see. Threats appear from all corners, even the most unexpected, all heading to a highly tragic end.

Lawrence Osborne – Only to Sleep

Lawrence Osborne – Only to Sleep

It’s 1988 and Philip Marlowe is already 72 years old and retired. But when an insurance asks for his help to investigate the death of a certain Donald Zinn, his curiosity is aroused and he accepts the job. After talking to the widow – young and beautiful and hardly mourning – he travels to Mexico to follow the last traces of the rich American. He soon finds out that there are some pieces about his death which do not really make sense and then he happens to find the man alive and kicking. But Zinn isn’t stupid, he knows how to get money and how to get rid of Marlowe. A scavenger hunt starts across Mexico.

Lawrence Osborne, who could already win me as a loyal reader with his former novels “Beautiful Animals” and “The Forgiven”, has done a great job in his Philip Marlowe novel. I liked Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled crime novels about the investigator and it is a risk to copy such a great writer. Yet, Osborne succeeded in creating exactly the mood that one finds in the old Marlowe novels and he placed the novel convincingly in the late 1980s. The title already is an homage to Chandler’s greatest novel and you can feel that Osborne has a lot of respect for his idol.

The novel itself has everything it needs: a femme fatale who seems to shift easily from one role into the other, a treacherous couple, a fierce environment where bribery reigns and money easily floats between the informant and the investigator. Some unexpected twists and turns made the plot move at a high pace, but most of all, it is the atmosphere that made it a great enjoyment to read. Even though it set in 1988, you can still feel the old Marlowe who acts as if nothing had changed since the 1930s and actually much that happens in Mexico could have happened decades before in exactly the same way. For me, Osborne did a great job and his Marlowe is in no way inferior to Chandler’s.

Lawrence Osborne – Beautiful Animals

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.“


Lawrence Osborne – Denen man vergibt

Lawrence Osborne – Denen man vergibt

David und Jo verlassen die Fähre, die gerade in Marokko angelegt hat. Sie sind auf dem Weg zu einer 3-tägigen Party bei Freunden am Rand der Wüste. Doch der Weg dorthin ist beschwerlich und David hat zu viel getrunken. Es passiert, was passieren muss: Mitten in der Nacht überfahren sie einen jungen Mann. Unentschlossen, was zu tun ist, packen sie die Leiche in ihr Auto und nehmen sie mit zum Anwesen von Richard und Dally, die sicherlich wissen, was zu tun ist. Die Polizei wird verständigt, doch auch diese hat wenig Interesse an einem Fall, in den Ausländer verwickelt sind und ein namenloser Fossilienverkäufer hat ebenfalls keine Priorität. David und Jo erholen sich dank Alkohol und Drogen schnell von dem Schreck, doch am nächsten Tag taucht die Familie des Toten auf und verlangt nach Wiedergutmachung. Während Jo sich weiter der ausgelassenen Feier hingibt, muss David den Vater des Jungen begleiten, an ein unbekanntes Ziel mit unbekanntem Ausgang.

Lawrence Osbornes Roman kommt einem vor wie aus der Zeit gefallen. Erschienen 2012 im Original unter dem Titel „The Forgiven“ und 2017 in der deutschen Übersetzung, hat man von der ersten Seite an den Eindruck, ein Werk der 1920er in den Händen zu halten. Würden die Figuren nicht immer wieder ihr Handy benutzen, ließen sie sich auch kaum in der Gegenwart verorten. Erzählstil, Setting, Themen – vieles erinnert an die Roaring Twenties und ihre großen Autoren wie F. Scott und Zelda Fitzgerald, E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton oder auch die später schreibende Patricia Highsmith.

Das Setting des Romans ist das zunächst augenscheinlichste Moment. Fernab des Alltags treffen sich eine Gruppe von Schönen und Reichen in dem Anwesen der beiden Homosexuellen Richard und Dally, um dort ausgelassen mehrere Tage eine rauschende Party im Stile eines Gatsby zu feiern. Es mangelt an nichts; das Personal, ausschließlich aus Marokkanern bestehend, umsorgt die Gäste rund um die Uhr und erfüllt jeden Wunsch. Der Alkohol fließt reichlich und bald schon werden die Konventionen, die man mit dem Übersetzen nach Afrika hinter sich gelassen hat, vollends vergessen. Einzig störend wirken der Wüstenwind und die Gluthitze. Hier kommt Osbornes große erzählerische Stärke zum Vorschein: die Beschreibung des aufkeimenden Windes, der den Wüstensand überall verteilt:

„Über Nacht war der Sand zu einem ernstzunehmenden Gegner geworden. Einem Gegner, der so klein, so heimtückisch war, das sie ihn nicht bekämpfen konnten. Nichts erbost mehr als ein ungleicher Kampf. Die Frauen beklagten sich, die Männer bissen auf die Zähne und baten das Personal um Hilfe.”

Keine alltagsweltlichen Probleme können die Figuren belasten, aber in der Fremde sind sie plötzlich ihrer Macht beraubt und müssen sich auf die Marokkaner verlassen. Diese beobachten mit ausdrucksloser Mine das Treiben und die Oberflächlichkeit der in ihren Augen Ungläubigen – Alkohol, Drogen, Homosexualität, Ehebruch. Erst der Unfall scheint die Verhältnisse umzukehren: die mit Verachtung gestraften Landsleute sind plötzlich an der Macht zu bestimmen, welche Strafe der Engländer bekommen soll. Und das Personal erwartet von der Familie, dass sie den Mord gerecht ahnden werden.

Hier beginnt der zweite, spannungsgeladene Aspekt des Romans. David wird nicht entführt, er begleitet die Männer freiwillig an den unbekannten Ort und weder kann er sie verstehen noch weiß er, was dort geschehen wird. Wie der Protagonist ist auch der Leser plötzlich herausgerissen aus der unbeschwerten Leichtigkeit der Feier hinein geworfen in eine lebensbedrohliche Situation. Vieles kann man sich vorstellen und hier holt einem der Autor bei der stärksten Frage des Romans ab: welche Erwartungen haben wir an das Handeln dieser nach westlicher Norm unzivilisierten Wüstenmänner und wie ausgeprägt sind auch im 21. Jahrhundert unsere Vorurteile?

Zwei Kulturen treffen aufeinander: einerseits die Gläubigen Marokkaner, die nur in Form von Bediensteten an der Party teilnehmen oder als Rache suchende Familie des Opfers auftreten; andererseits die Globetrotter, die das schöne Leben kennen und pflegen und ihrem Hedonismus freien Lauf lassen. Die gegenseitige Verachtung wird von Osborne nicht subtil, sondern ganz offen thematisiert und die Angst vor dem nicht abzuschätzenden Handeln der Familie weicht mehr und mehr der Empörung über das Handeln der Partygäste. Am Ende wird die Haltung sehr prägnant auf den Punkt gebracht und lässt einem als Mitglied dieser Kultur durchaus beschämt zurück:

„Aber er hatte ihm nie auch nur eine einzige Frage zu den Berbern gestellt, die für ihn offenbar ausschließlich Teil einer unveränderlichen Kulisse waren. Lebendes Inventar sozusagen. Natürlich äußerte er ihretwegen Bedenken und war wie jedermann heutzutage darauf konditioniert, ihnen zu misstrauen. Doch in Wahrheit war ihm jedes Wort über sie zu viel. Natürlich galten sie als Reservoir des Terrorismus, was sie dann wiederum doch für hitzige Diskussionen interessant machte.”

Ein wirklich beachtenswerter Roman in klassischer Tradition, der den großen Vorgängern in nichts nachsteht.