REVIEW by John Barnie

NWR Issue r26

The Golden Orphans

by Gary Raymond

The narrator of The Golden Orphans (he is never identified by name) is an artist who has outlived his promise – he hasn’t sold a painting in four years and is in debt, something which is a bone of contention with his girlfriend, Clare. So, when he learns of the death in Cyprus of his one-time art teacher, Francis Benthem, he is glad of the excuse to fly off to the funeral. Benthem was himself an enfant terrible of the art world when the narrator first knew him, but after retirement from the art school he moved abroad and more or less disappeared – the narrator hasn’t heard from him in ten years, even though Benthem was profoundly important to him, both as a painter and as a man.

Arrived in Cyprus, he finds to his surprise that there is only himself and the priest at the funeral until a limousine pulls up at the graveside and two young women step out, followed by a middle-aged and an older man These are, respectively, Evgeny, and Illerian Prostakov, known to his close associates as Illie. They are hard for the narrator to place at first – Prostakov, we soon learn is rich. Is he a Russian mobster, an oligarch? He lives in a secluded mansion, where Evgeny and his ‘daughters’ are staying – daughters in inverted commas because, as we learn very much later, nobody in this thriller is quite what he or she seems.

Francis Benthem had been employed by Prostakov to paint his ‘dreams’, or rather one obsessive dream of a vague night scene in the middle of which is a red swing. Prostakov believes that if the dream can be made real in paint, it will mean something, reveal the whereabouts of something that is important to him. It is he who invited the narrator to the funeral with the ulterior motive of getting him to take Benthem’s place. Tempted by the money on offer which will clear his debts, he agrees, and takes over the studio on the estate which has been created out of a converted water tower.

The plot thickens as the narrator tries to penetrate the mystery of Prostakov’s obsession and Benthem’s involvement, but the mystery only deepens the further he delves into it. One key, it emerges, is the legend of the ‘thirty golden orphans’ – children who were orphaned when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974. There is a mystery surrounding them, too, because it is widely believed that there were more than thirty, some of whom survived in a feral state in the city of Famagusta which the Turks sealed off and left abandoned at the end of the war. (This is partially true, though it is a former suburb, Varosha, which was allowed to decay in this way.)

Struggling to disentangle all these skeins, the narrator gets to meet Furkan Balaban, a Greek Cypriot bar owner, and his somewhat older girlfriend, Tara, as well as the attractive English waitress, Lou, with whom he almost but not quite starts an affair. Then there is the sinister Stelly who prowls the tacky world of Napa’s tourist bars and clubs and whom everyone warns him against….

All the clues the narrator is able to put together lead back to the ‘golden orphans’ and the deserted city of Famagusta, for one of these orphans is the child of Prostakov and Tara when they had a love affair just before the invasion. With his wife dying of cancer in Russia, this long lost child is all that Prostakov has left to live for, and hence his increasingly desperate search to locate each of the ‘golden orphans’.

When you stop to think about the plot in the cold light of day, there are absurdities and inconsistencies. Prostakov was in Cyprus in 1974, we learn, to conduct some ‘business’ for, it is implied, a Russian mobster or oligarch. Gary Raymond has transplanted Putin’s Russia into Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, but this doesn’t matter because, like any good thriller, while you are in the middle of it you accept the premises established by the plot.

The Golden Orphans is in fact a page-turner and I read it at a single sitting because I couldn’t bear to wait to find out what happens next. The book is short (155 pages) and light in the hand, and easily packed in a suitcase if you are off to the sun – in Cyprus, perhaps.

I’m not going to spoil it by telling you how the novel ends. Suffice it to say that it is only in the very last pages that all is revealed, and when it is, it is not by any means what you expect.

John Barnie’s latest poetry collection is Departure Lounge, published this year by Cinnamon.

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previous review: The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear, Tell Me A Dragon (Jackie Morris Retrospective)
next review: No Good Brother


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