Lawrence Osborne, author of “Beautiful Animals,” loves stories of smoldering suspense involving morally twisted foreigners in exotic locales. He treads on familiar literary terrain here.
by Lawrence Osborne
Hogarth, $25, 304 pp.
The whitewashed villages, sun-baked hills and azure vistas on the Greek island of Hydra make a haunting backdrop for the deadly intrigue that unfolds in Lawrence Osborne’s excellent and timely morality tale “Beautiful Animals” (Hogarth, $25).
The story immerses us in the privileged world of well-heeled vacationers who descend on the car-free island in high season for lazy days drinking on cafe terraces and boozy nights hobnobbing in the villas of “ancient bohemians.”
But the listless and perpetually disappointed Naomi Codrington, a young Brit who’s on the island for the summer with her elitist, art-dealer father, Jimmie, and his uppity Greek wife, Phaine, isn’t having it.
We sense the tension in this family early on. Jimmie married Phaine after his first wife — and Naomi’s biological mother — died. Naomi isn’t very fond of her stepmother.
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Phaine, for her part, lords a quiet suspicion over Naomi, who arrives on the island this season after losing her job at a London law firm under mysterious circumstances.
Naomi has been coming to Hydra with her family since she was a little girl, first with her late mother and Jimmie. She speaks fluent Greek and knows the rocky footpaths to secluded swimming coves as well as any of the unfailingly discreet island natives.
Lately, she has taken to venturing out in the early mornings for secret swims, soaking up the epic solitude Hydra offers to those who know its hidden nooks.
Naomi needs an escape from the sunny monotony of her parents’ social life on Hydra and she gets it in the form of a budding friendship with another young vacationer, the impressionable Samantha “Sam” Haldane, who’s visiting the island with her family.
Naomi takes the less self-assured Sam under her wing, but it will be a fraught friendship.
In a scenario stripped from today’s headlines about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, the pair befriends a Syrian Muslim refugee named Faoud, who has washed ashore on one of Hydra’s tucked-away beaches.
Naomi, needing to redeem herself and regain a sense of purpose after losing her job, enlists Sam in a plan to help the handsome, college-educated young castaway that binds them forever.
We come to see that Naomi is a great keeper of secrets and that while she plays the role of a humanitarian who wants to save the world from ethnic bigotry and xenophobia, she is not above compromising her ethics to achieve her ends.
Naomi’s personality is as big and convoluted as that of the gods and goddesses of Greek myth.
She is “one of those people who exert an entirely unconscious influence on others and who cannot be held responsible for the effects,” Sam’s father, Jeffrey, keenly observes. “This made her more dangerous.”
As “Beautiful Animals” plays out, that assessment seems increasingly accurate, as Naomi persuades Sam and then the Codringtons’ dryly pragmatic Greek housekeeper Carissa to help with the plot to aid Faoud, who’s on an emotional journey as much as a physical one.
But Naomi’s overconfidence about the moral rightness of her goal is a curse that she is too self-involved to recognize.
She tests the bonds of friendship and kinship in such an offhand way that it is almost shocking.
Osborne — the Bangkok-based British author of “The Forgiven,” set in Morocco, and last year’s “Hunters in the Dark,” set in Cambodia — loves stories of smoldering suspense involving morally twisted foreigners in exotic locales.
He treads on familiar literary terrain here. “Beautiful Animals” is equally transporting, not least because of its fearless exploration of the darkest corners of the human spirit.