It's that time of year when you hear talk of "summer reading," a term that refers to books that are fun and undemanding — you know, the perfect accompaniment to lying on the beach. Such books heighten the airy sense of irresponsibility that comes with escaping the gravity of our lives back home.
That weightlessness is at the core of Beautiful Animals, a seductively menacing new thriller by Lawrence Osborne, a Bangkok-based English writer who unites Graham Greene's fondness for foreign soil with Patricia Highsmith's fascination with the nastier coils of the human psyche.
Set on the jet-setty Greek island of Hydra, this new novel offers all the glamorous pleasures of a vacation page-turner — you never know where it's heading. But it has things on its mind.
The story begins with Naomi, a disgraced British lawyer in her late 20s who's spending the summer at the fancy vacation home of her father, an art collector whose values she disdains, though not enough to stop living off his money. Cynical and bored — she describes herself as a "spinning top" — Naomi is delighted when she meets Sam, a gorgeous American college girl who feels superior to her own father, a liberal journalist.
Even though Sam catches a whiff of sociopathy in Naomi's sophistication, she's attracted by it. Soon they are wandering the sun-bedazzled island, basking in their own specialness.
Things change when Naomi and Sam stumble across a handsome young man washed up on an isolated beach. His name is Faoud and he's pretty clearly that inescapable figure in today's fiction — a migrant.
Fancying herself an idealist, Naomi wants to help him. She concocts the sort of childish scheme you only cook up if your life has insulated you from the idea of consequences. And though Sam doesn't love the plan, she's too weak to escape Naomi's orbit when things start to boomerang.
Osborne made his name as a brilliant travel writer, and like his earlier novels — set in Morocco, Macau and Cambodia — Beautiful Animals creates a thrillingly immersive sense of place. Whether he's describing the "pale chocolate color" of soil around olive trees, the exact crockery you'd find in a yacht or the sociology of Hydra's Four Seasons Resort — famous, I discovered, for being filled with Russians — his sharp, knowing prose lets us see this island world and smell it and hear it.
Because he has spent much of his life on the road, Osborne knows first-hand the dreams, delusions, foibles and monstrosities of modern tourists and expats. At one point Naomi thinks that visitors to Hydra, "were out of their element and therefore unleashed. Their eyes had a different cruelty and freedom." Osborn clearly agrees. Compulsively searching for something, his characters adopt new personalities, do reckless things and treat other people's lands as theme parks where what's happening isn't quite real.
But, of course it is. And the tension in his work lies in waiting to see what happens when those thoughtlessly skimming a foreign land collide with terra firma. In Beautiful Animals, the refugee Faoud is not simply a victim or a cause, but a man with ambitions of his own. The locals on Hydra may accept tourists' money, but that doesn't mean they share their values or desires or plans.
What does all this mean for those beautiful animals, Naomi and Sam? When things go wrong, are they taken down by their antics, or are they shielded by their privilege? I'll say only this: What makes Osborne's work so compelling is that it's ruthlessly unpredictable. This is one writer who knows that life, even on a rapturously lovely Greek island, is no day at the beach.