These novels will take you from the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the Uruguayan city of Salto.
With the COVID-19 pandemic upending lives for the foreseeable future, many travelers have had no choice but to cancel plans and put dream trips on ice. With that said, that leaves many of us with plenty of time for reading. Travel lovers have many choices when it comes to what to add to their quarantine reading list, and they aren’t all works of non-fiction; authors of fiction can just as effectively recreate a strong sense of place in their novels and short stories. Whether you’ve had to cancel an epic backpacking trip around Australia or postpone a beach getaway in the Caribbean, transport yourself there through one of these excellent works of literature. You might even be inspired to add a destination to your future travel plans!
Top Picks for You
'The Last Wave: An Island Novel' by Pankaj Sekhsaria
WHERE: Andaman Islands
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the Bay of Bengal between India and peninsular Southeast Asia, are perhaps best known to travelers as a fabulous diving destination. But, as Indian anthropologist and novelist Pankaj Sekhsaria depicts in his debut novel, the islands are home to indigenous peoples that have suffered under Indian political dominance and insensitive tourism. In The Last Wave: An Island Novel, Sekhsaria fictionalizes the very real problems the Jawara people face and sets the (fictional) narrative around the pivotal (real) event of the title: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which devastated the Andaman Islands.
'Carpentaria' by Alexis Wright
Aboriginal Australian author Alexis Wright sets her epic novel in far North West Queensland, a part of the country so far removed from urban southern Australia that it could be a different country. Wright combines aspects of Aboriginal storytelling traditions with a diverse cast of characters that clearly spring from the land. In exploring the tensions and bonds between the people of the area, the author makes a searing commentary on the pervasive racism of Australian society and the exploitation of the land.
'The Circle of Karma' by Kunzang Choden
WHERE: Where: Bhutan
The landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan retains an aura of mystery to many travelers because of its limits to tourism—it keeps visitor numbers low by charging a per diem visa fee. The Circle of Karma, the first novel written in English by a Bhutanese woman, gives an insight into the everyday life of women and villagers in the isolated country. Tsomo, from a small village in the mountains of Bhutan, is forced to leave her village—and then her country—and in the process learns about herself and the world beyond the mountains.
'The Shipping News' by Annie Proulx
American author Annie Proulx is highly regarded for her ability to describe landscapes, and in The Shipping News, she captures that of Canada’s remote Newfoundland in wintertime. The fierce sea plays a large part in the geography of the novel, and the imagination of its characters. Drownings are common, and the harsh weather affects every aspect of life in this easternmost region of North America.
'A Long Petal of the Sea' by Isabel Allende
Chilean author Isabel Allende has a knack for epic tales, although in her latest she moves away from the magical realist style that she’s often utilized throughout her long career. A Long Petal of the Sea is Allende’s most recent historical novel, which starts in the Civil War-era Spain of the 1930s and travels across continents (and oceans) to Chile. Roser and Victor flee dictatorship in Spain and become exiled in Chile. While they long to return home, they make a new life in their new land.
'What We Were Promised' by Lucy Tan
While Anglophone readers might be more used to reading tales of immigrants seeking the American dream in the West, Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised focuses on a Chinese family who returns home after years in America. Being Western-educated, the family doesn’t quite fit in back in Shanghai and must contend with guilt and anxiety as they try to make a home in an almost unrecognizable place that they feel obligations toward.
'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver
Set in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the 1950s and ’60s, The Poisonwood Bible is told from the perspective of the wife and daughters of a firebrand American Baptist preacher who believes he’s been sent by God to the central African country. As the country fights against Belgian rule, installs its first independent president, and then suffers under a CIA-backed coup and presidential assassination, Nathan Price’s family navigates their own complicity in Western imperialism. The Poisonwood Bible is an essential read for would-be travelers to this part of sub-Saharan Africa seeking an introduction to a defining period in its history.
'Havana is a Really Big City' by Mirta Yanez
In her collection of stories, Havana is a Really Big City, Cuban Mirta Yanez reflects both a love and pride in her homeland and a critical questioning of the official line. Themes of class, race, gender/feminism, and sexuality in post-revolutionary Cuba are explored, giving international readers a rare insight into the complexities—and joys—of contemporary Cuban life.
'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys
English lit majors will likely have a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea hidden away somewhere, and should dust it off and re-read. Everyone else interested in the colonial-era Caribbean should pick up a copy of this 1966 classic. Set on the tiny island of Dominica, Jean Rhys’ short novel is the reimagining of beloved Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It explores the story behind Bronte’s “madwoman in the attic,” recasting her as a mixed-race Dominican woman. Exploited by an insensitive English man who embodies Britain’s exploitation of its colonies, she’s driven to mental illness.
'The Hungry Tide' by Amitav Ghosh
The vast mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans—in the delta of the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal—are home to fishing communities, tigers, and crocodiles. Amitav Ghosh recreates the world of the Indian Sundarbans through a tale that brings educated outsiders into contact—and sometimes conflict—with the rural inhabitants of this harsh but beautiful and fertile environment.
'The Harmony Silk Factory' by Tash Aw
The modern-day nation-state of Malaysia emerged from British colonial rule in the mid-20th century. Readers seeking to understand the Southeast Asian country’s history and society without wading through a historical study should pick up a copy of British-Malaysian author Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory. Businessman Jimmy Lim establishes himself as a daring, anti-authoritarian legend within his local community. But his son sees through this reputation and the front that he’s created for his business, the silk factory in the title.
'Tilled Earth' by Manjushree Thapa
As one of Nepal’s most prolific English-language writers, Manjushree Thapa’s novels, non-fiction collections of essays, and short stories are an ideal starting point for better understanding the deeply beautiful, grindingly poor Himalayan country. Tilled Earth is a collection of short stories that weave together the diverse lives of rural and urban Nepalis. Her characters reflect almost every sector society: elderly craftsmen in ancient Kathmandu, students going abroad in search of a better life, and young couples defying taboos against inter-caste relationships.
'The Whale Rider' by Witi Ihimaera
WHERE: New Zealand
Maori author Witi Ihimaera grew up on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, a community he recreates through both realism and mythology in The Whale Rider. Adapted into a film in 2002, the novel centers on Kahu, heiress to a Maori chiefdom but unable to claim it because her grandfather is set in his patriarchal, patrilineal ways. After discovering that she has an ability to communicate with the whales that migrate off shore, Kahu fights to reclaim her ancestral role and changer her tribe’s future path.
'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Beloved Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie vividly tells a pivotal part of her country’s history that many international readers have long forgotten (or never knew about), but that was instrumental in shaping its post-colonial trajectory. Shortly after independence from Britain in 1960, the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria seceded, declaring their own short-lived Republic of Biafra. The secession led to civil war, famine, and countless deaths. Another gripping novel that should be read in place of a history textbook for a better understanding of present-day Nigeria.
'The Big Green Tent' by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Classic Russian literature is well known to be lengthy and epic (think: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment), and contemporary author Ludmila Ulitskaya plays on this literary heritage in her sweeping novel, The Big Green Tent. Centered around three friends in post-war Moscow, Ulitskaya recreates the fear and paranoia of Stalinist Russia, but also shows how joy and light can emerge from darkness.
'Where We Once Belonged' by Sia Figiel
Samoan author and poet Sia Figiel set her first novel, Where We Once Belonged, in a fictional Samoan village that nevertheless represents the beauty and harshness of life in the real Pacific island nation. While narrating a touching but brutal coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, Figiel uses a traditional Samoan storytelling technique to challenge Western assumptions about Samoa and Samoans.
'The Signature of All Things' by Elizabeth Gilbert
WHERE: French Polynesia
Starting in London and traveling to the United States and French Polynesia, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is ambitious yet delicate. Although various characters take center stage for a while, this is ultimately Alma Whittaker’s story. A 19th-century “lady scientist” imagined to be the contemporary of Charles Darwin, Alma falls in love with an exceptionally skilled botanical illustrator, but tragedy leads her to a simple and challenging life on the Pacific island of Tahiti.
'The Museum of Innocence' by Orhan Pamuk
Acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is an unusual novel because readers can visit a museum in Istanbul that was created as a companion to the novel. The novel itself follows the life and obsession of Kemal, who expresses his lifelong love for Fusun by collecting a houseful of mementos. These objects—ranging from cigarette butts to clothing—paint a collective picture of late-20th-century life in Istanbul.
'How to Escape from a Leper Colony' by Tiphanie Yanique
WHERE: U.S. Virgin Islands
The novella and short stories contained in Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony are mostly set in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the author’s home country. She draws upon oral storytelling traditions as well as Latin American magical realism to express the possibilities of life in the Virgin Islands.
'A Trip to Salto' by Circe Maya
Uruguayan author Circe Maya tells A Trip to Salto as diary entries written by a mother and daughter who embark on a trip to Salto in search of their missing husband/father, a political prisoner, in the 1970s. It depicts the agonizing effects of dictatorship on ordinary people and relationships and is an important read for travelers who want to better understand Latin America’s recent past.