Literary Tourism | Novels Set in Other Countries
Not quite travel literature
...and not, definitely not, travel guides. No, my favourite genre doesn't seem to have been officially recognised by anyone else: I like to read novels which are set in a well described place so that I can experience the sights and sounds of another country.
It seems to me that it's much easier to understand another place, sometimes also another era, by reading a novel in a way that even the best guide can't deliver. No matter how beautiful the description, you can feel and see more through the mind and senses of well-drawn characters. You're experiencing this new world from the inside rather than as an onlooker.
Of course this does have some minor drawbacks: you aren't going to be able to plan a trip around what you read (not often anyway), but how much better you are going to be able to understand and absorb the atmosphere than from a straightforward guidebook.
I originally gave this article the name Paperback Places after my blog of the same name which has been sadly neglected for quite some time. On the blog I tag the books I've read according to the country and sometimes city where the book is set. Here, though, I thought I'd just take us on a grand tour of the world, calling at each continent, apart from Antarctica, that is. I haven't read any books set there - yet..
I will show no favouritism, and call on each alphabetically. You can do that if you travel by book - you may be backtracking but there is no need at all to take travel distances into account.
All the old maps used to illustrate the continents are photos of maps in an old 1836 atlas that used to belong to my father. Several still require some work with an image editor.
African literature is one of my abiding interests, probably because I spent part of my childhood in central Africa and it's left me with a desire to know more about all that was passing me by as a child. I feel I have a need to find out more.
There are just SO many books to choose from. That of course applies to all the continents, I know.
Authors I love are Chinua Achebe for "Things Fall Apart", Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for "Half a Yellow Sun" and "Purple Hibiscus", Abraham Verghese for "Cutting for Stone", Barbara Trapaido for "Frankie and Stankie", and many, many more.
Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist and poet died very recently. "Things Fall Apart" was possibly his best known work. It gives a very clear picture of the effect of colonialism on the African world. I recommend it highly even though in parts it's an uncomfortable read.
He wasn't only a novelist, far from it, a great deal of his work was non-fiction. He supported the cause of Biafra in its efforts to be an independent nation, and the last publication before his death in 2013 was There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"Half of a Yellow Sun" follows on very fittingly from Chinua Achebe and his last publication because it gives yet another perspective on the same Biafran war.
The book won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and has since been made into a film. It must be said that parts of it are quite disturbing, but I would still recommend it.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an excellent speaker and I recommend you watch the video at the end of this article.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This is a wonderful book where the story is told from four different points of view. Not only can you hear the "voices" distinctly and clearly, you can feel yourself under the hot sun of Africa.
Barbara Kingsolver has of course written a number of books but not set in Africa. The latest I have read was The Lacuna, set partly in Mexico and partly in the USA.
The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of a African Childhood
"The Flame Trees of Thika" carries on the theme of a childhood in Africa from "The Poisonwood Bible" although it's set in a much earlier time, pre-World War I.
It tells the story of Elspeth Huxley's childhood on a coffee plantation in Kenya, as seen through her eyes, although with the benefit of an adult's understanding. It does describe an earlier time of British colonialism and gives a very good picture of this, and equally, of the beauty of Kenya.
Huxley was an excellent writer (she died in 1977) and has written several books based in Africa, including a follow up to "The Flame Trees" called "The Mottled Lizard".
Asia probably gives us by far the widest variety of cultures of any of the continent. I hardly know where to start to offer favourite writers. I suppose I have read more Indian or Chinese authors than any of the others put together but there are several books from Japan on my shelves.
I have already written an article about both "The Kahsmir Shawl" by Rosie Thomas and also "A Carpet ride to Khiva" by Christopher Aslan Alexander which are very much in this region, although the second isn't a novel.
Authors of note might be Salman Rushdie (India), Anchee Min or Amy Tan (China), Kazua Ishiguro (Japan)
Suggestions for Asia
I find it incredibly hard to restrict the number of books I recommend. Be assured that these ones are just my current favourites. They may well change later.
This was the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize. It tells, very powerfully, the story of one aspect of modern India.
Aravind Adiga was born in India but emigrated to Australia with his family. The White Tiger was his first novel published but he had already written Between the Assassinations which was subsequently published in 2009. A third novel, The Last Man in the Tower, was published in 2011.
A Welsh woman leaves Wales for India with her husband when he becomes a missionary there. Many years later her grand-daughter finds a Kashmir shawl with a lock of hair when clearing her father's house, so starting her off on a voyage of discovery.
I wrote a review of The Kashmir Shawl, along with A Carpet Ride to Khiva, in another of my articles.
Rosie Thomas is a romantic fiction novelist and has twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year award, first in 1985 for Sunrise, and then again in 2007 for Iris and Ruby.
Australia is a country and a continent and yet probably the one I know least about as far as literature from or set in that country is concerned. There was "A Town Like Alice" by Nevil Shute which I read way back when I was a teenager. "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough was very popular when I was much younger too.
More recently, Kate Morton's "The Forgotten Garden" alternates between England and Australia, and "What Alice Forgot" by Liane Moriarty is one I'd like to read. However this is a section I'd love some suggestions for because I can see I'm sadly lacking in the Australia department.
Suggestions for Australia
These are two I read some time ago. I realise now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not well up on modern Australian writing and so I'd welcome any suggestions.
Almost a classic now and since adapted to cinema, radio and television, this book tells the story of Jean, a British woman, a prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya. She meets an Australian man and ultimately, after the war has ended, goes to Australia in the hope of finding him. The whole book is extremely evocative of the time and place.
A great book to read to find out about life in Australia, it follows an Irish family through three generations of its life in a new country.
Central and South America
Another section with a wide scope, so many countries, so many authors.
Isabel Allende from Chile has written a good many books but the one I always think of first is "The House of the Spirits". Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez from Columbia wrote "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera.
I've included Mexico here because to me from the outside, Mexico has more in common with South America than it has with North America, not least the language.
Suggestions for Central and South America
There are so many books from South America which I should read but haven't, including Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits, but I'll add to this list when I achieve my goals.
This is a long book which is most fascinating and amusing too. I was interested that "cholera" is in fact a play on words because cholera comes the word "choler" meaning anger.
More than just the European Union
Of course here I am almost overwhelmed with choices. I think by far the majority of the books I have on my groaning shelves are books set in Europe, and if the truth be told, probably the majority are from western Europe.
I think I probably have a preference for those set in France or Scandinavia, if I have to choose, but truly I have so many of them I hardly know where to start.
I have just finished "Hand in the Fire" by Hugo Hamilton which is set in modern day Ireland where the point of view is that of an immigrant from Serbia. I'm in the midst of a book by Camilla Lackberg, "The Drowning" which is a psychological thriller. Apparently it's the sixth in a series, and that's something I wish I'd known before I started. Very gripping though. I'm planning to read Kate Mosse's "Sepulchre" next, set in France.
For a selection of books set in France, see 7 Books that Transport You to France
Suggestions for Europe
I've read four of these five books and loved them for different reasons. Fair Stood the Wind for France was written by HE Bates in 1944 and has since been made into a film. It is a wartime story written during World War II but it tells the tale of an unlikely love. A gem!
Once and Then is a book I'd like to read. It's a tale told from a child's point of view, a child in an orphanage, and once again the book is set during WWII.
An RAF pilot had to force land in occupied France and was sheltered by a farming family. The story, first published in 1944 before the Second World War had even finished, tells of his falling in love with the daughter, their escape through France to Spain. It is particularly strong in describing the French countryside.
HE Bates was a very prolific author but sadly his greatest successes, financially anyway, came after his death in 1974, when several of his works were adapted for television and film.
The Venetian Contract may look like a bodice ripper if you look only at the cover art, but in reality it is a fascinating glimpse into 16th century Istanbul as well as Venice. I enjoyed it far more than I expected.
Marina Fiorato was born in England but as you can guess from her name, her father is Italian, Venetian in fact. Her first novel, The Glassblower of Murano, was a great success. She has followed it with four further novels including this one.
The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson is another Scandinavian crime novel. It has nothing to do with princesses or African countries and not a great deal to do with the fish of the same name. The atmosphere is very wintry and, unsurprisingly, Swedish.
Karl Stig Kjell Eriksson, to give him his full name, is a Swedish writer. Not all his books have been translated into English and not all by the same translator. I firmly believe the translator can make or break a book so it would be interesting to read some others.
The History of History, well, what can I say? It is an amazingly bizarre story set in Berlin. If I'd realised how bizarre I probably wouldn't have read the book but I'm so glad I did. All is explained in the end. It is truly fascinating and you do get a vivid picture of modern day Berlin.
Ida Hattemer-Higgins is an American writer and this is her debut novel. A quote from it that I loved: "Going around in life using German, which Margaret had learned only a few years before, was like walking around in high heels--although it drove up the aesthetic rush of going out on the town, it was dreadfully uncomfortable after a while, and there were certain places you couldn't go".
Now here I do have a problem! I have read any number of books set in the USA but I don't know that many of them give me any atmosphere or feeling of place. An exception I think may be Joyce Carol Oates' books which do seem to me to be indisputably placed in the USA. I would very much welcome suggestions from any of you reading this who can offer me some suggestions of what novels I should read to learn a little about the USA.
For Canada I can manage little better but I do have my sister living there and she sometimes suggests books for me.
Suggestions for North America
A magical story set in Alaska isn't going to be typical of the whole of the USA but it certainly does conjure up a picture of a frozen wilderness. It tells the story of a childless couple who moved to Alaska to escape their longing, their pain and their sadness. Into the harsh reality of their lives comes the Snow Child, only to be seen in winter. Is she real or is she a fantasy?
This is an amazing first novel by Eowyn Ivey, one that I rather unexpectedly loved.
"Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched."
"perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees"
― Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child
After a slow start, I ended up finding I could hardly put the book down. It tells the inside story of an apparently perfect marriage and the disappearance of Amy, the wife. There are some amazing twists along the way. I chose this one because it is set in North Carthage, Missouri, and to my mind at least, describes a particular well-to-do way of life.
Now, of course, it has been made into a very successful movie.
“There's a difference between really loving someone and loving the idea of her.”
― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
I can't say I loved this book but it wasn't so bad I couldn't read it. I wanted to like it because I enjoyed "We Need to Talk About Kevin", also by Lionel Shriver but I can't say that it came anywhere near. There such a lot of ranting about the American health system I found quite tedious but at the same time it did give me an insight, though possibly biased, and an appreciation of our own National Health Service.
Chimamanda Adichie explains how hearing only a "single story" or a single point of view can lead to many misunderstandings.
Now for your Recommendations
I'd welcome any thoughts you have on novels which seem to take you on a journey to a different country and I'm happy to change any of the suggestions I've made if you know something that fits better. :)