When I was younger, I stocked my bookshelves with all the markers of the intellectual reader. I made the fatal mistake of confusing obscurity with art and attempted to persuade myself that what I really enjoyed were “difficult” and complicated novelists who rejected bourgeois notions such as a plot and story.
The novelist and travel writer (he has said he hates being called a travel writer but, nonetheless, he is) Lawrence Osborne has repeatedly pointed out in interviews the suspicion of plot and story held by literary writers. Plot is often considered the domain of genre fiction.
“Novels are not essays or ruminations or sentence worshipping. It’s like a film that doesn’t tell the story – you can’t sit through it. Which is not to say you shouldn’t be worshipful of plot, which is what literary writers are terrified of; they think it’s vulgar, which is stupid – after all a story is not a trivial thing.”
Lawrence Osborne is definitely not afraid of telling a story, and his novels have the pace and feeling of thrillers. However, they are definitely literary fiction. They display a mastery of prose styling that is also apparent in his non-fiction work – his ability to evoke a feeling of a place or an emotion is unparalleled. He is undoubtedly a great novelist. His past novels have taken readers to the casinos of Macau, the deserts of Morocco and the jungles of Cambodia. His latest novel, Beautiful Animals, takes us to a more familiar European location, the wealthy Greek island of Hydra.
Like most of Osborne’s work, Beautiful Animals is set amongst an elite – in this case the world of rich English and Americans who holiday on the Greek islands. The central character, Naomi, is a young and beautiful lawyer who has left her job in London under a dark cloud and has retreated to her father’s house on Hydra to drink ouzo, eat souvlakia and smoke weed. Here she meets Sam, a younger American girl, and introduces her to the delights of the Greek island and the summer way of life.
The discovery of an attractive Syrian refugee named Fouad in a cove on the island provides the new friends with a mission, and the decisions that Naomi makes will lead to profoundly disturbing consequences that will affect all the players.
Although the central plot device of Beautiful Animals relies on the Mediterranean migrant crisis, this is not an issue novel. The ethical issues surrounding mass migration and Europe’s duty towards migrants come up, but in a natural way – as these topics do around the dinner tables of the well-educated and privileged. The novel focuses rather on the hidden motivations of people and, in particular with Naomi, the way that we construct themselves and use this constructed version of ourselves as a justification for selfish and fatal acts. It is the logic of “what I do must be right, because I am an essentially good person”. No one comes out of the novel particular well; Osborne manages to make everyone an accomplice in the crime that forms the central drama of the book. Since this novel is a story-driven, I’m afraid I’m not going to give you any more insights into the plot – you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
Of course, this novel has a special feeling for me, living in Greece. I don’t move in the circles that the protagonists move in – I’ve never even been to Hydra – but it’s nice to read a novel that treats Greece as a setting with love, but doesn’t fetishize it. Greece is the location but it is not a novel about Greece – in the same way it is not a novel about the migrant crisis. Lawrence Osborne is obviously someone who is deeply fond of Greece (I believe he has lived here in the past), and this shows in his prose without being overbearing.
It’s hard to write about Greece without falling into well-worn tropes, and in some sense this is unavoidable. Greece is both a major tourist destination and a country that has been defined by the eyes of foreigners. It has adjusted itself to the view of the stranger as a method of survival – to an extent Greece is what the traveller wants it to be (Athens is the exception). So the tropes of sun, sea, wine and ouzo are appropriate in a novel that is set amongst wealthy sojourners on Hydra. In particular, Sam is a newcomer to the island, unlike Naomi who has been coming since she was a child. Although Sam does not appear for large parts of the novel, I think she represents the eye of the reader – a viewer who is dragged in an made culpable in a crime, entranced with Greece and with the glamorous life of her new English friend (representing of course the sophistication of the Old World).
There are a few points which stick out uncomfortably, especially to someone living in Greece. I was slightly confused by Osborne’s mistakes regarding Greek drinks nomenclature. Osborne worked for a long time as a wine writer at Vogue, and has since written on all sorts of drinks around the world. He also wrote the absolutely fantastic The Wet and the Dry, documenting his attempts to get a drink in various Muslim majority countries. He is an expert at writing evocatively about alcohol. Take for example this bit:
“Over the years she had discovered from experience that the best moments between them were when they drank ouzo together. That double-edged and flavourless drink was their dark truce, their mutual anonymity.”
However the problem here is that ouzo is not flavourless – it’s heavily flavoured with anise; that’s what makes it ouzo. Tsipouro and raki are the unflavoured Greek spirits. It’s a minor mistake, but it shows up instantly to someone who has spent time drinking in Greece – and given Osborne’s credentials, I was a little surprised.
Beautiful Animals does what I think it set out to do marvellously. It tells a tense thrilling story in a high evocative style. As always I’m looking forward to Lawrence Osborne’s next offering.