Books can make you feel familiar in places you’ve never stepped foot in, or pull you right back home, regardless of geographical location.
Inspired by the great site Trip Fiction, dedicated solely to promoting books that “let you see a location through an author’s eyes”, we think of books that have taken us around the world…..
Catherine, Design and Production Manager:
I’m currently, finally, reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins)- a slim volume from the pile of books yet to be read on my bedside table – only a few years after everybody else, then! So far I have travelled with Santiago, the book’s main character, from the Andalusian Hills in Spain where he tended his sheep to Tangiers as he heads towards the Egyptian pyramids. It’s an uplifting tale about hope and following your dreams while learning from the setbacks on the journey.
I must also recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini (Bloomsbury) – set in war-torn Afghanistan, it is beautifully crafted. Although harrowing and brutal at times, the writing is utterly compelling as the relationship between Mariam (sent to Kabul aged 15 to marry the surly and callous Rasheed) and Laila (a girl who is forced to become a second wife to Rasheed nearly 20 years later) develops. Hosseini’s descriptions of life in Kabul through its tumultuous history are vivid and heart-breaking, and yet the story is inspirational. These women endured so much but still show great courage and self-sacrifice in the face of the most awful circumstances. While it is fiction, there is no doubt that Afghani women have suffered greatly in reality. This book is nothing less than a masterful piece of literature.
Sarah, Marketing and Publicity Manager:
I recently read Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (Harper Perennial), the story of a banker who becomes friends with an unsavoury New Yorker after he is left living alone in New York City when his wife returns to their home in the UK. I’m a little obsessed with NYC and try to read a book set there whenever I get a craving for it. O’Neill conveys the sense of being in the city incredibly well, incorporating the good and bad aspects of it. This is my favourite line: “Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte: the street is night while the sky is day.”
Sam, Design and Production Assistant:
I read Burmese Days by George Orwell (Penguin Modern Classics) on a nine hour bus trip from Zagreb to Berlin. I have a tendency to read books about personal suffering in foreign places while travelling long distances. Also on my list that trip was Richard Flanagan’s soul-pulverising but brilliant Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage) and W Somerset Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour (Vintage), although the latter’s author doesn’t suffer much more than being rigid and inescapably British in South-east Asia.
Burmese Days’ protagonist is a fairly commonplace wood merchant with a distinctive facial disfigurement, whittling out a living for himself in British imperial Burma. Despite having the best of intentions, he is universally derided and disdained by his fellow expats, a shallow and charmless flock of breakfast drinkers.
He is less dismissive of the local culture than his countrymen and befriends an Indian doctor whom corrupt local officials seek to defame and banish from his profession. The doctor hopes to safeguard his reputation by gaining membership into the British club, which the merchant struggles to get past the deeply bigoted committee. The merchant is introduced one night at the club to a charming but manipulative Englishwoman, who he projects his views of acceptance and egalitarianism onto despite her own bigotry and aristocratic pretentions.
The book is more than a thinly-veiled critique of the entrenched racism of British imperialism that Orwell would have witnessed as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. It plays on themes of lust and delusion, loneliness and impotence, and the consuming and in this case degrading struggle for decency in an immoral culture.
Esther, Editorial Controller:
Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore (Penguin) is largely set in Scandinavia, though a few are set in places such as Austria and New York. The whole book has a distinctly un-English feel to it, in that the world Dunmore creates features icy, endless winters, glorious summer nights and European styles and traditions. She writes about human pain, sexuality, isolation and love between a parent and child, but you can never be entirely sure where exactly in Scandinavia these stories are taking place, which is part of the beauty of it all. I found the most memorable stories to be ‘Love of Fat Men’, ‘The Ice Bear’, ‘Short Days and Long Nights’, ‘North Sea Crossing’, ‘Spring Wedding’ and ‘Smell of Horses’ because they have a languorous, sensuous effect, and offer vivid imagery of snow-capped mountains, appetising European breakfasts, afternoon siestas and hot days near water’s edge – things we don’t have much of in the UK. When characters travel, we – the audience – travel with them and bask in their un-English ways that feel so alien to us, we long to be in those countries, even if it’s too hot or too cold!
And finally, some inspiration for your next trip….