Beautiful Animals – Review

“Morality was nothing more than paying attention to the chain reaction while not causing another one.”

Beautiful Animals is simply stunning. This novel is not just thrilling in plot, but beautiful in prose. Osborne writes about the complexity of the human psyche in such a way that the vividness and absolute truth in some sentences took my breath away.

We follow two girls, Naomi and Sam. Naomi has had a summer home on the island with her father and stepmother all her life. Even though she can’t stand her stepmother and seems to harbor deep-rooted resentments against her father, she finds herself fleeing from her freedom, unsure of what direction her life will take next.

Sam is staying with her family in Hydra for the summer. First time visitors, her mother especially, is anxious to emerge themselves into the routine of expats and locals. Sam’s mother encourages the friendship, knowing that this could lead to more social connections. Sam is drawn to Naomi right from the start. She sees in her someone so different from all the other girls she’s known.

“The girls her own age were tiresomely uniform, as if a human-production plant in the center of the country had churned them out according to an approved paradigm. Suddenly, she had found someone different.”

Right away, the two find themselves inseparable, and Sam is endlessly enamored with how easily Naomi accepts and includes her. She is swept away in the glamour of it all.

Until the two of them stumble on a man, clearly a refugee, stranded and struggling in the isolated wild of the island. Naomi, immediately wants to help and charms the more reluctant Sam to her aid.

Naomi comes up with a plan to help Faoud. Sam doesn’t like it, but finds herself drawn in and is complacent to stop it. Even when things take a drastic and irreparable turn, Sam still is unable to tangle herself away from Naomi.

“She supposed that, speaking for herself, she had been mentally preparing for it for days and it was, she imagined, the way people evolved: they gravitated toward the most pleasing and dangerous idea.”

This book had me on the edge of my seat. It isn’t simply the way the writing lulls the horrifying nature of the plot into something eloquent and beautiful. It’s more that Osborne takes us into the heart and soul of each of these characters. We feel their desire to do good, even if this leads to very flawed logic and actions.

The thing I liked about this book the most is the flawed characters. They make bad choices, but one could argue that sometimes there are only the best of bad choices to be made. You can understand how Naomi, Sam and Faoud, each ended up being able to rationalize their decisions and how they were led to them. As humans we are all flawed in similar ways, and Osborne doesn’t flinch away from exploring these flaws. Rather he embraces them and creates incredibly compelling characters.

The quote at the beginning is such a beautiful summary of this novel. We are given an introduction to the girls and the plan without knowing much of Faoud. He is the catalyst, the beginning event that triggers the rest. And the girls are left to try and minimize these events from exploding into far larger ones that could quickly spiral out of control.

It’s interesting to try and frame the girls as the morality of the novel, and yet, strangely enough they are. They are not justice warriors out to save the planet, they are simply trying to find their place in it. And it is this effort that creates the catalyst and also minimizes the chain reactions.

Even as we get to know Faoud, in the days after the plan goes awry, we develop a sympathy and an understanding of him too. He isn’t easy to shove in a box and explain in terms of good or evil. He is an amalgamation of events in his life, leading to justifications and rationalizations built upon the last.

“Because you either act or you are shipped back in a cage to face an anonymous fate that no one will care about anyway.”

As the novel reaches its final chapters, I found that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I also found that, strangely, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen. Often when reading we pass judgement or pick sides, rooting for one outcome over another. In this novel, the line between right and wrong is so blurred, I didn’t know where it was, or even where I thought it should be.

In a time when we find ourselves facing overwhelming discussions on the politics of refugees, on the morality of helping other countries, this novel is impeccably timed. It throws you in the middle of the conversation, but with such an intimacy to both sides that it will make you pause and consider them equally. The politics is kept subtle and the tone is not heavy-handed. It is a fictional story that simply makes you aware of the larger discussion in the world. And while it is timely, this novel could take place in any number of times or any number of places, so beautifully is it written.

One thing is for sure, if you like dark, gritty and morally ambiguous novels, this book is definitely for you. It is haunting and beautiful and will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

Thank you Blogging for Books and Hogarth Books for sending me a copy to read and review in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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