Book Review: The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond

The Golden Orphans

The Golden Orphans is a stunning thriller in every sense of the word. It is packed full of atmospheric description, set on the sun-bleached streets of Cyprus, where crime and corruption hide beneath a veneer of idyllic island life. The novel begins with a sense of unease, which builds slowly. We follow in the footsteps of a young artist who has travelled to Cyprus to attend the funeral of his mentor and friend, Francis Bentham, who spent the last years of his life painting for Mr Prostakov, a wealthy Russian.

Our unnamed protagonist is soon sucked into the surreal embrace of this beautiful island and its party capital – Ayia Napa. Prostakov makes him an attractive offer, and, whilst he is certain that something more is going on, he decides to accept, agreeing to take Bentham’s place and paint for the Russian.

Raymond has captured the unsettling atmosphere of island life – a place caught between two nations, where wandering souls seek some sense of acceptance, and myth has a strong hold on reality. At its heart lies Famagusta, the abandoned city, cut in half by a solid wall and said to be the favoured hiding place of the Russian mafia:

“Famagusta rose from the scrub like a giant carcass, the white-washed bones of abandoned buildings rutting up into the skyline… none of us had suspected such a pallid, lifeless scene…”

Our young artist meets an array of intriguing characters, including Evgeny (another Russian) and his two teenage daughters, who are staying with Mr Prostakov, though they never seem to see very much of him, and show no interest in exploring the island. He meets Lou, an independent young British waitress who agrees to show him around, and Tara, who runs the local art gallery, and warns him against having anything to do with Stelly, the strangest character of all: a drug dealing, half-dressed vagrant…

“His small naked torso was covered in ill-defined tattoos that went up his neck and presumably under his hat. He walked with a bit of a trot, there was something bird-like – no, lizard-like – about him. He looked cold, like a razor’s edge… lightly bobbing on the balls of his feet.”

He also hears tales of the ‘Golden Orphans’, babies who became separated from their families during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. There are rumours that some of them grew up feral in the abandoned ghost town of Famagusta, and that they are still there, living amongst the ruins.

Eventually, he must set foot inside this ghost city and confront the mysteries within, uncovering some uncomfortable truths in a blast of confusion and surprises. The book ends abruptly, with a shocking revelation.

The plot reminded me of The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, two other unnerving novels which follow a similar thread: that of a naïve young man caught up in a world of corruption and organised crime, where things are not what they seem. The Golden Orphans is a very short book (just 155 pages), but its brevity makes the final revelation even more shocking, so that, as a reader, you are forced to see things differently and question your own assumptions. It’s a thriller that really gets under your skin.

Gary Raymond will be reading from The Golden Orphans at Cardiff Library’s Open Space event on 17th May.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.