287 pages; $25
In the age of GoFundMe, the act of giving can feel vexingly weightless. This relationship between ease and charity is the starting point of Lawrence Osborne’s new novel, Beautiful Animals. Of the central character, an entitled young Englishwoman named Naomi, her father observes: “She wanted to be a Samaritan: the easiest job in the world, and perfect for the useless European middle classes.”
Mr Osborne is a startlingly good observer of privilege, noting the rites and rituals of the upper classes with unerring precision and an undercurrent of malice. For the idle elite of his novel, charity is only intermittently selfless. More frequently compromised by vanity and ego, it’s the conduit for a certain kind of self-actualisation, and its practitioners are dangerously lacking in self-awareness.
Mr Osborne’s novels often feature expatriates in an exotic locale: the Moroccan desert in The Forgiven, Macau in The Ballad of a Small Player, the Greek island of Hydra for Beautiful Animals. Against these backdrops, his characters engage in bad behaviour, making poor moral decisions — frequently having to do with the transport and disposal of bodies — on an epic scale.
Beautiful Animals is set during the refugee crisis, a humanitarian disaster that lurks beneath the surface of the island’s genteel social life. The preoccupations of Hydra’s moneyed vacationers are both alluring and relentlessly superficial: questions of interior design, dinner menus, the quality of the local help. Of course, it’s only a matter of time until the crisis explodes into their sheltered lives.
Mr Osborne takes his time baiting and setting his trap, and one of the pleasures of the novel is its unpredictability. The early sections trace the power dynamics between Naomi and a newly acquired friend, two young “people of similar social standing subtly divided by a common language.” Naomi is English and sophisticated, Sam is American and beautiful. The varying currency of these attributes is what draws the two women together, and also what antagonises them, particularly once they come upon Faoud, a handsome young refugee, seemingly swept up onto the shore.
Naomi and Sam take it upon themselves to help Faoud, although they do so in ways that betray both their youth and the shallowness of their impulse to charity. They bring him strawberries and yogurt; they find him refuge in an abandoned hut; they make him into a figure in a fairy tale they enact. But it is Naomi who goes one step further, abstracting Faoud into a platform from which to explore her own ethical position: “She was the savior and she relished the role. It made her vital in a new way. To save another person: It wasn’t nothing. … Such shifts were the substance of one’s moral life — they made the intolerable tolerable.”
Of the two women, Naomi is the more complicated character. She is in Greece with her father and stepmother because she has been dismissed from her job at a London law firm, accused of manipulating evidence in a “politically sensitive” case in order to earn an acquittal for a Turkish restaurant owner accused of assault. But Naomi rarely feels like a lawyer; as her father notes, “being in litigation for a large firm had been playacting for her, a form of impersonation”.
Naomi’s crusading is crafted to feel simultaneously sincere and self-serving, fitful and inconsistent. That hollowness is perceptible even to the impressionable Sam: “She suddenly resented both her own passivity and the relentless charity-worker passion of the older girl, in which to boot she didn’t quite believe. Naomi’s playful cynicism — the thing about her that most appealed to Sam — seemed to have disappeared in a baffling way from one day to the next. She could understand the logic of it, but why the determination to make a stranger into a moral cause?”
Beautiful Animals is unlikely to radically alter your understanding of the refugee crisis. But it may make you question the nature of your engagement with that issue and the world beyond. At one point, as she struggles to understand her own inconstant impulse to be just, Naomi observes that “morality was nothing more than paying attention to the chain reaction while not causing another one.”
It’s not giving a great deal away to say that in her attempt to do good, Naomi fails spectacularly. But in describing morality as an act of witness, she provides a plausible definition of one ethical position for the writer. Mr Osborne has been described as an heir to Graham Greene, and he shares with Greene an interest in what might be called the moral thriller. Greene’s characters often adhere to a code, however deluded, and pursue it with unyielding dedication.
In contrast, the problem for Mr Osborne’s characters is their lack of fixed principle, and that existential void is what drives his narratives. His characters are people emblematic of our time, when the notions of duty and sacrifice are by and large in abeyance. They make bad decisions, live through terrible things and yet remain unchanged because on some level they lack the imagination and the discipline to change. For people like this, life becomes a little less comfortable in the wake of catastrophic events, but only in flashes. Like The Great Gatsby, Beautiful Animals
concludes with a rowboat on the sea and an image of light in the distance. But Mr Osborne crafts a rebuttal of the green light that symbolises Gatsby’s dream: “They were like shooting stars, flaring up for a brilliant moment, lighting up the sky even for a few lingering seconds, then disappearing forever”.
©2017 The New York Times News Service