If a novel about a displaced Syrian man washed ashore on an idyllic Greek island is as topical as a topic can get, then the discovery of that man by two young women – one American, one British – vacationing for the summer with their wealthy parents on the same island, risks running head-on into that most detested wall of the cliché – and that, too, the most obvious one of the Great White Saviour storyline. With three critically acclaimed works of fiction, Lawrence Osborne has chipped away at this insidious trope.
After sojourns in New York City, Istanbul, and Mexico, the British expat currently lives in Bangkok in order not to live “in rooms” his whole life. It is also not to write ignobly about foreign lands, which he believes is a damning quality of many foreign correspondents. Comfort zones are not for him, and it is evident in his fiction, notably his latest novel, “Beautiful Animals,” which takes repeated and unabashed stabs at affluent white Europeans and Americans - from their staggeringly expensive ways of seeking new ways to bore themselves into further alcoholism while vacationing in paradises around the world, to their eccentric views on the human condition.
“Beautiful Animals” is quite evidently an allegory of our times. But instead of being a tale of morality and only that, Osborne couches its moral investigations into the more immediate plot of a tense psychological thriller. Through his characters’ interactions, he asks questions about exile, laws, right, wrong, human obligations to one another, and what makes a criminal act from theft to murder justified.
The novel is propelled by the actions of Naomi and Samantha (Sam). The former is a lawyer recently fired from her firm in London for unethical practices on behalf of a client. Her father is a wealthy art-collecting tycoon with homes in their native England, Italy, and Greece. The latter, also born to wealthy parents, is a product of white American liberalism that still believes there is such a thing as a well-meaning racist.
Naomi and Sam forge a quick friendship. Naomi’s guilt-ridden conscience of being born into extreme wealth is balanced by Sam’s nonchalance about the pricks of conscience itself. On one of their hikes and swim getaways, to escape the booze-money-cocktail party Ferris wheel of their parents’ lives, they discover Faoud, the man washed ashore. Naomi makes it a personal agenda to assist him with anything and everything within her power. Sam, while skeptical and wondering out loud if Faoud is Christian or Muslim, and if that should determine whether Naomi ought to help him or not, goes along.
On the surface, these are superficial markers of characters whose developments remain in flux throughout the novel. Sam’s father Jeffrey and brother Christopher have a pedantic conversation about missing home as seen through their readings of the “Odyssey,” which, in the course of the conversation, Jeffrey calls pedantic. Amy, Sam’s mother, will never admit she has racist strains, and might likely puff up with indignation against the charge. But she is perpetually wary of her daughter falling to the nefarious pull of Greek boys, and wants Sam to frequent the island’s bar and meet more Americans. This suggestion comes in the face of Sam spending too much time with Naomi, which leads Amy to first wonder if they are getting romantically involved, and if they are, she is fine with it.
Throughout the novel the tension is so tautly drawn that the presentation feels simple. Scenes of pastoral beauty have the charge of livewires as the people that walk through them carry a multitude of tales inside, said and unsaid. When they explode, they do so with the quiet force of a stroke. Conversations equally hide and reveal, and what seems the verge of an outburst becomes a new opening to more layers of intimacy. Lawrence Osborne writes with the professional’s seasoned grace that makes the job look easy. In the words of Woody Guthrie, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” I’m wary of using hyper-committed words like “genius” when speaking of mortals who excel above and beyond expectations – even in the case of an Einstein or Shakespeare – but Osborne’s prose has that quality of simplicity building the most complicated worlds needing no more than the most essential words in his toolbox.
Osborne has been called the Graham Greene of his generation. Paul Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Evelyn Waugh, and Asian cinema are also within orbiting distance of his sphere. His novel has traces of their influence while also retaining its own specific narrative strategy, shown through the inevitable fates of characters, which, undoubtedly, is at its core. Naomi’s guilt brought on by her privilege, and Sam’s simmering, untouched innocence are more than mere character traits or flaws. In Osborne’s writing they are the very wheels on which the fortunes of the two women constantly ride. Even when idleness drives them to depths of dullness that cannot be enlivened by the most expensive wines on the island, or the whole of Greece, their fates keep spinning.
But despite critical successes, Osborne, one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers of fiction, has been working largely under the radar, away from fame and fortune. If Greene, who lived through the height of his country’s empire and lived to see its decline and fall, failed to grapple more seriously with it in his fiction, Osborne’s gloves are off when tackling one of the most urgent issues in world events in his own times. He does so while deploying fiction to go beyond plot and character and believability – he forces it to ask the big, uncomfortable questions, and turn the mirror against ourselves.
Nadeem Zaman is currently Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. HIs collection of stories, "Days and Nights in the City: Stories" is forthcoming from Bengal Lights Books in 2018.