Beautiful Animals

PARIS — A French farmer who smuggled migrants across the Italian border was sentenced on Tuesday to a suspended four-month prison term in a case that has shone a light on the government’s immigration policies…. “I will continue my actions because it must be done,” Mr. Herrou said. New York Times 8/8/17

Lawrence Osborn's Beautiful Animals is set on the Greek Island of Hydra, now a favorite of the super-rich. Naomi, 24, is spending the summer as she always did with her wealthy father and stepmother in their villa high in the hills above the port. On her morning swim, she meets the slightly younger Samantha who is vacationing with her parents.

They strike up a friendship, travel around the island together, and share their meals in one of the many port-side tavernas. While sailing around the island one day, they notice an Arab migrant, Faoud, asleep on a distant beach. They begin a discussion of whether or not to help the migrant.

So begins this moral thriller. Naomi is one of those individuals who exerts a strong influence on others. She argues persuasively that it is important to aid the helpless.

“Wanting to help the helpless is not an uncommon desire, and if you want me to explain it I’d say that I’m determined to make a difference. It’s not just an adventure. And if it is, it’s one with a purpose.”

Samantha is not so sure. She thought about ditching the charity and simply going back to her family and their games of chess and backgammon. She thought it would be much easier than the uncertain effort to help Faoud.

But she was the weaker of the two and gradually succumbs to Naomi’s view. They begin by taking Faoud small baskets of food, then they find him a shelter to live in for a while and finally devise a plan to help him leave Hydra and begin his journey to Greece and then Italy.

Naomi relished the role of a savior. Osborne writes, “It made her feel vital in a new way. To save another person: it wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t exactly and achievement but it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak. Such shifts were the substance of one’s moral life—they made the intolerable tolerable.”

But Naomi’s plan to help Faoud leave Hydra goes horribly wrong. So, begins the second half of the novel. Osborne describes Faoud’s motivations and beliefs about Islam and his Western pursuers. Here I must stop or you’ll have little desire to read the book.

I found Beautiful Animals an exciting novel, found it hard to put down and, at times, didn’t want it to end. It’s one of those that are in my mind, among my favorites.

If there is a message to be found in the novel it is that altruism, like anything else, has effects which are impossible to predict at the time. Naomi’s attempt to help Faoud fails, fails badly.

You might find the novel changing your views on the current refugee crisis. What is the nature of your engagement with the issue? At one point, Naomi tries to understand her desire to help Faoud, but she does so without anticipating the possible consequences of doing so.

Osborne writes, “What beautiful animals we are, Samantha thought, beautiful as panthers.”