7 of the best novels to read while we can’t travel

Take these books on your travels, be they living room, back yard or further afield, and they might just change the way you see the world…

Rosie Pentreath, February 2021.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” – Joan Didion

In March 2020, the United Kingdom followed other countries going into lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As the pandemic raged, many regions of the world went in and out of quarantine throughout that turbulent year. And 12 months after COVID-19 was officially declared to be a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, the UK is in the midst of a third lockdown.

We must all once again stay at home, leaving the house only to exercise, and buy food and medical supplies, to protect the NHS and save lives. So far, 112,000 people have died with coronavirus in the UK alone.

The beauty and escape of books has helped many of us stay sane in our confinement. The fine words of fellow writers have brought solace, and sudden plunges into wide worlds full of the adventure that we hope could once again be ours.

While travel for leisure remains illegal, here are seven outstanding books that have helped us gallivant in our minds while we still can’t physically.

  1. The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

Where? Santa Marino, a fictional island in South America.
When? Early 1900s.

Virginia Woolf: The Voyage Out

Virginia Woolf’s 1915 novel, her debut, takes us to the shimmery fictional South American island, Santa Marino with Rachel Vinrace and an assortment of adult acquaintances. A voyage of discovery, as much as one ‘out’, the novel follows the 24-year-old Rachel as she discovers love, languor and the ludicrous behaviours of Woolf’s satirised Edwardian society members – all set in the other-worldly dust of the secluded island. The novel’s tragic end serves to give it an expansiveness, useful for those of us confined to four especially stout walls.

2. The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway

Where? Côte d’Azur in the French Riviera & Spain.
When? 1940s.

Ernest Hemingway: The Garden of Eden

This is a bold book by Hemingway. Read with the right lens, it’s an exploration of female empowerment, sexual fluidity and heteronormative take-down, quite extraordinary for the 1940s in which it was written. Published after Hemingway’s death, in 1986, the novel isn’t just about a “reversal of gender roles” as one Susan Seitz would have us believe, but rather a telling in the glamorous setting of the French Riviera of Catherine Bourne’s infatuation and sexual relationship with the beautiful Marita. Catherine’s writer husband, David, develops his own feelings and love affair with Marita afterwards, sadly ending Catherine’s time alone away from the loud world of men in Marita’s arms. But it’s a treat of a read until the end, nonetheless.

3. Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

Where? India.
When? 1980s.

Gregory David Roberts: Shantaram

Shantaram is a ravishing romp through India’s criminal metropolitan underworld in the company of an on-the-run Australian convict and ex-heroin addict. Our protagonist Lindsay gets mixed up in Mumbai’s underworld, and takes us on irresistible rides on the brink of danger in vivid colour, introducing us to a cast of expats, allies and criminals that are impossible to forget – from the stunning Karla Saaranen to Lindsay’s guide-turned-great friend Prabaker. Roberts paints the slums of the city with impressive colour, and philosophises on human experiences through character conversations and author observations with rare clarity, making the 1000-page epic feel more like a Chekov short story.

4. Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan

Where? Hong Kong.
When? 2019.

Naoise Dolan: Exciting Times

Missing Sally Rooney, the publicists said, and you’ll love Exciting Times. Whatever. Dolan’s prose is as refreshing, contemporary and damn addictive as Rooney’s I agree, but also let’s talk about this work as a standalone piece. We’re all jealous of how good the writing is in this debut novel, about protagonist Ava’s two big relationships during the first year of a TEFL stint in Hong Kong – one with wanker-banker Julian who also inspires a soft spot in many, and the other with the drop-dead-beautiful Hong Kongite lawyer, Edith. Love triangles and exciting times ensue – but, in the far-flung setting of the now-Chinese city flooded with expats and post-colonial tensions, who will Ava end up with (if anyone)?

5. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami

Where? Tokyo.
When? 1984.

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84

No writer transports you quite as instantly or ferociously as Haruki Murakami. All his books make this list, to be honest, but let’s talk about the epic trilogy, 1Q84. Like all Murakami, it’s weird, wonderful, winding and utterly absorbing, dropping us in gritty, grimy sexual Tokyo backstories of the city’s 1980s. There are unforgettable taxi trips, and then way tripier trips that land us in 1984’s parallel dimension 1Q84, a world of cults, two moons and ‘little people’, a sinister bunch with a connection to an all-powerful, all-awful leader – intertwined with a love story. As time is all most of us have on our hands at the moment, it’s not a bad one to dive bravely into this 3000-page adventure. Good luck – and ‘Kishi Kaisei 起死回生’ (‘wake from death and return to life’) as the Japanese would say.

6. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

Where? Dorset, England.
When? 1962.

Ian McEwan’s beautiful novella explores the complexity of words not said in post-Victorian England. When newly-wed Florence, a violinist, and Edward, a history graduate with less direction and less wealth (yes, it is important), approach their wedding night everything unravels.  In a Dorset hotel overlooking Chesil Beach, the 18-mile shingle structure between the isle of Portland and West Bay, the honeymooning couple navigate memories and morbidly English cuisine, and become increasingly nervous about the inevitable act of consummating their marriage. After ingeniously excruciating scenes of increasing claustrophobia and dread, Florence flees and what unfolds is an unravelling of a deep secret that threatens the life they could have had together.

7. On The Road, Jack Kerouac

Where? United States & Mexico.
When? 1947.

Jack Kerouac: On The Road

On The Road encapsulates, in the lexicon of the beats, the expansiveness and loneliness of empty American landscapes. Set on the road, between San Francisco and Mexico City, the novel follows the dreamily-named Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty careering around from place-to-place, accompanied by women and booze. All sexy nonchalance, it’s inspired the best of us to dream of a year or so spent in transit in the vast States, and some of us actually make it…

One comment

  • such great collection of books Rosie 🙂 I read part of them… one of my favorites is ‘Shantaram’, for me it was so interesting to follow this epic experience!!! 🙂 and yeah, if we cant travel, at least, now, we can read 🙂 if there’s something I love to do more than travelling it’s only reading eheh have a perfect weekend and greetings from Lisbon! 🙂 PedroL

    Liked by 1 person

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