I love to read books set in countries other than the UK. It’s such a good way of immersing yourself in a new place and culture without actually travelling there – and also a great way of preparing for a trip to that country!
Here are 10 of my favourites in no particular order, along with some others that I couldn’t bear to not at least mention. They’re not exactly light-hearted beach reads, but they’re ruddy good books!
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (USA/Nigeria)
This was the first book I read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I absolutely loved it. The novel follows two central characters who are childhood sweethearts in their home country of Nigeria and eventually go their separate ways as they venture to the USA and the UK. They meet again in Nigeria some years later.
It sounds like a rather standard will-they-won’t-they romance, but it’s really not. The main themes of race, immigration and belonging are incredibly well explored through the experiences of the characters. Plus, Adichie is just an incredible writer. The descriptions of places and feelings are wonderful and really do transport you to where the characters are and what they’re thinking.
I read and thoroughly enjoyed Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun not long after reading Americanah and it was similarly brilliant. I’m definitely going to explore more of her books, and I would recommend that you do too!
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (Germany)
I have a bit of a thing for novels with wartime settings. Alone in Berlin is set during World War II in the German capital and tells the story of a couple, the Quangels, who used to support the Nazis, but start to resist the regime in their own small way after their son dies in battle. The book is focused on both the Quangels and the inspector determined to find out who is behind their small acts of resistance, but all sorts of other intriguing characters also make an appearance, making for a fascinating portrait of life as a resident of wartime Berlin.
This is not a particularly uplifting read, but it’s a superb one that I just couldn’t put down. The novel is based on a true story, which makes it all the more affecting. Apparently it took decades for the novel to be translated and published in English, but it received widespread acclaim when it did finally appear and was also recently made into a film.Definitely start with the book, though!
Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (Poland)
I first read this as a 16-year-old and it had such a profound effect on me that I went on to devour many more books concerning the Holocaust and wrote my university dissertation on this topic (I was a very cheery teenager…!).
Another book about real-life events, Schindler’s Ark is the Booker Prize winner that inspired the film Schindler’s List. I think I was so affected by the book because it helped me to begin to comprehend the real tragedy of the Holocause; not just the huge numbers of people killed, but the immense suffering that took place in the run up to all of these deaths.
It sounds like it should be an incredibly depressing read, but it isn’t! The tragedy is portrayed alongside the wonderful efforts of Oskar Schindler to save as many Jews as possible from the horrors of concentration camps, and the novel format combined with Keneally’s talent for drawing out intriguing details from historical sources means Schindler’s Ark is a fantastically compelling read.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (India)
I’m starting to spot a trend for slightly grim yet unputdownable reads in this list…! A Fine Balance is probably the best novel set in India that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot.
The book is set in the 1970s during a particularly turbulent time for the country, and closely follows four main characters – a widow, a student and two tailors – throughout this period and beyond. Each character has seen suffering in their past and is looking to a better future – but, as you might guess, things don’t always run that smoothly.
This is one of those emotionally gripping novels that you simply can’t stop reading because you so desperately want things to turn out well for the four protagonists. It’s also a wonderful illustration of working class life in a bustling Indian city, especially through the minor characters who pop up from time to time (or even just the once). Even though it can be depressing in parts, I recommend A Fine Balance to everyone who asks for a really good book to get into.
Stasiland by Anna Funder (Germany)
I bought this on a whim some years ago, attracted by the promise of a glimpse into life in the old East Germany. It’s a collection of stories gathered by Funder from both residents of the GDR and some of the members of the Stasi who spied on them between 1961 and 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down.
The stories are both fascinating and unsettling, and sometimes it’s difficult to realise that these were real life events. I went into the book not knowing an awful lot about life in East Germany, and came away feeling much more enlightened (and slightly disturbed at the extent of the intrusions into privacy that GDR citizens had to endure).
As an aside, if you enjoy this, I would also recommend the film Good Bye, Lenin!, which provides a more humorous take on the effects of the Berlin Wall on GDR residents.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë (Belgium)
It’s no secret that my favourite book of all time is Jane Eyre, but Villette comes almost as close in my literary affections.
This is the most autobiographical of Charlotte Brontë’s works, as she draws on her experiences of travelling to Belgium to work as a teacher in a boarding school and falling in love with one of the married masters at the school.
The central character, Lucy Snowe, spends a lot of time exploring her conflicted feelings while wandering around Brussels, making for some interesting descriptions of the city. I particularly love the novel, though, for its unconventionality – it’s a love story, but not like many other romantic novels published in the same era.
A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (France)
This was an impulse buy while perusing the wonderful Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris a couple of years ago. I totally fell in love with the city on that visit and just couldn’t resist buying a novel set in a bookshop in Paris!
The story revolves around the opening of a bookshop, The Good Novel. The owners aim to turn it into a must-visit destination for serious bibliophiles around Paris and beyond, but have to deal with intense jealousy and criticism from all quarters – as well as the mysterious deaths of a number of authors associated with the store.
It suffers a little from pacing issues, but this is an excellent book that’s perfect if you love bookshops and often daydream about opening your own (mine would sell cakes on the side and have an epic sci-fi and fantasy section). The parts of the novel dealing with the solving of the murders should also whet your appetite if you’re also a crime fiction fan.
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke (Sri Lanka)
I’m a huge fan of Arthur C Clarke – he wrote some brilliant science fiction novels and short stories that manage to combine both solid scientific concepts and interesting characters. I bought The Fountains of Paradise a couple of years and then read it when we booked our honeymoon to Sri Lanka – as, quite happily, the novel is set in a fictional version of the island nation.
The book revolves around the building of a space elevator from Earth to the lower reaches of space, from where spacecraft can then travel into deeper space without the need for rockets from the ground. It turns out that the only place this can be built from is an island called Taprobane, modelled very closely on Sri Lanka. However, the monks living on the mountain where the elevator needs to be built are strongly opposed to the project.
The novel uses parallels with Sri Lankan history (or a fictional version of it!) to explore the dilemmas faced by the engineer behind the space elevator and how the building of such an ambitious structure conflicts with particular religious beliefs on Taprobane.
It sounds a bit highbrow and quite complicated, but as always, Clarke manages to help the reader navigate the science through some brilliant characters and a compelling plot.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland)
We’re back in slightly-depressing-yet-brilliantly-written territory here with this haunting novel that imagines the events around the real-life last public execution in Iceland in 1829.
I picked this up because, despite being a big fan of a few Icelandic bands/artists, I’d never read any literature set in the country and was intrigued by the historical setting of the novel. The book focuses on a woman, Agnes, who is accused of committing murder in a farflung, rural part of Iceland and the winter she spends on a farm in the run-up to her execution – as there are no prisons for her to be locked up in.
There isn’t much in the way of dialogue, but there are many wonderful descriptions of the Icelandic countryside and seasons that really make you feel like you’re there in that place and time. The main drivers of the plot are the revelation of the circumstances that led to the crime being committed, and the ways in which the other characters react to Agnes and her plight.
It’s a beautifully written novel that I recommend to anyone with an interest in Iceland and/or historical fiction.
Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant (Italy)
Blood and Beauty is a lively, gripping historical novel following the fates of the infamous Borgias towards the end of the 15th century.
I didn’t know much about the Borgias or indeed this period of Italian history before picking up this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the complex political and religious setting in which the family rise to become the most powerful in both the country and the Catholic world thanks to the appointment of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope.
The story is told through the perspectives of a wide range of characters, balancing the Borgias’ innermost thoughts and feelings with the events going on around them. There are lots of wonderful descriptions of Rome, too – both positive and negative. There’s a fair of sex and violence as you might expect from a book about the Borgias, but the novel is really about the characters and their ever more complex relationships.
- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
- Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck (Sweden)
- River of Ink by Paul M M Cooper (Sri Lanka)
- The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa (Italy)
- Wild Swans by Jung Chang (China)
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (various locations around Europe)
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Netherlands)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)