Anyone want to change my mind about this book?
On reflection, my decision to structure a weekend’s reading around this and Kit de Waal’s fantastic My Name is Leon (review here!) was, perhaps, ill-conceived. In style and setting, the two books are world’s apart. And after spending a day with the charming, downtrodden Leon, on first impressions, Osborne’s Beautiful Animals did not come off well.
I’ll give you the blurb:
When Samantha, a young, impressionable American, meets Naomi, a Brit with a taste for danger, their relationship quickly takes on a special intensity. Amid the sun, sea and high society of island life, their imaginations are sparked when one day they find a young Arab man, Faoud washed up on shore, a casualty of the crisis raging across the Aegean. But when their seemingly simple plan to help the stranger goes wrong, all must face the horrific consequences they have set in motion.
Promising, right? Beautiful Animals is part thriller, part morality play, part travelogue. Naomi is a talented manipulator, a wannabe do-gooder with a burgeoning saviour complex. She is also – as with the majority of the characters in this book – filthy rich. She spends her summers on the Greek island of Hydra, at her ‘art collector and philanthropist’ Daddy’s and evil step-Mummy’s house, idling away her days sleeping, swimming and smoking weed.
That’s until she meets Samantha, a beautiful American on holiday from college with her family. Sam quickly falls under Naomi’s spell, mainly, it seems, to escape from the boredom she anticipates for the weeks ahead. They’ve barely had dinner together when they find Faoud washed up on a hidden shore. For the first section of the book, we follow Sam follow Naomi as she sets plans in motion to help the young, good-looking and, it transpires, well-heeled refugee to escape to a new life
Up to this point, I was pretty on board with the story. Yes, the characters are mostly odious, sketched in such a way that they lack real depth. Yes, the speed with which Naomi and Sam’s relationship develops is implausible. Yes, there’s gratuitous use of adjectives and over-description, which works well for Osborne’s sumptuous Greek island scene-setting but really grates when applied to almost everything else – but this is the point, right? The superficiality of the privileged world we’ve been invited into; the obsession with appearances; the banal internal narratives of the young women that see really only object or opportunity in the man they are purportedly trying to help. I get it. I don’t particularly like reading it, but it’s a clever exercise in setting a tone.
Or is it? There seemed to be a great opportunity to challenge these perspectives in the sections of the book which follow Faoud’s escape from Greece. But there is no tone change. The little detail we get about his background only seems to confirm that, by the birthright of class, he too should belong to the same social circle as Naomi and Samantha. And herein, apparently, lies the injustice. We learn little of substance about his character or his motivations, despite him being a far more interesting creation. Ultimately, he becomes little more than a narrative vehicle for shifting the plot towards a bizarre Mediterranean semi-noir, which I found really hard to believe in.
That said, I ate this book up in two sittings. Partly because I was waiting for it to get somewhere it never ended up, but also because it’s entertaining in its own way. Osborne is clearly a brilliant travel writer, and there’s a perverse pleasure in spending time with Naomi and Sam because – and perhaps despite the author’s intentions – they are thoroughly unlikable. If you want to transport yourself to sea and sand without having to worry too much about plot or character development, this is still worth a look.
Have you read Beautiful Animals? Would love to hear your thoughts!