A great novel transports you to a time and a place. Here are five of them.
Everybody knows the concept of “desert island books”, the novels you might pack if you were going to be marooned on a desert island. Thanks to the pandemic, many of us are indeed now marooned, except that instead of lazing on palm-fringed beaches, we’re in lockdown – in urban apartment blocks, suburban terraced houses or village homes.
A good book can help us forget about the world around us and also substitute our longing for pastures greener. It can take us from our sofa to the beaches of Thailand (as in Alex Garland’s The Beach) or to the streets of New York (as in Paul Auster’s City of Glass).
So, as someone who researches and teaches literature, I’ve chosen five novels that allow me to be elsewhere in my mind, whether that’s a glorious English countryside setting, the streets of a European metropolis, or the urban sprawl of an unnamed Indian city.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, the aged butler of Darlington Hall, and his ill-judged life choices that saw him being involved, albeit only on the fringes, with British fascism in the interwar years.
This allusion to British fascism in particular is something that makes this novel stand out: it is a subject matter not often discussed or even taught.
But at the moment, I can particularly take solace in Ishiguro’s beautiful descriptions of the countryside that Stevens – unused to the freedom of travel – encounters during his journey across south-west England:
What I saw was principally field upon field rolling off into the far distance. The land rose and fell gently, and the fields were bordered by hedges and trees … It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face.
As the lockdown drags on, this is a feeling I am longing for.
W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants
This collection of four novellas is predominantly set in England and Germany but also offers glimpses of the US, Egypt, Belgium and Switzerland. Focusing on a different protagonist in each novella, Sebald portrays how the long shadows of the second world war have affected individuals – but also how Germany has engaged with its troubled past.
His descriptions of the town of Kissingen’s illuminated spa gardens, with “Chinese lanterns strung across the avenues, shedding colourful magical light” and “the fountains in front of the Regent’s building” jetting “silver and gold alternately” conjure up images of times gone by and a town as yet untroubled by the scourge of antisemitism.
Sebald’s narrative is a collage of fiction, biography, autobiography, travel writing and philosophy. His prose is so full of quiet beauty and eloquence that it always helps me forget my surroundings and enter a quiet and contemplative “Sebaldian” space.
Patrick Modiano: The Search Warrant
The Search Warrant pieces together the real-life story of Dora Bruder, a young Jewish girl who went missing in Paris in December 1941.
Modiano attempts to retrace Dora’s movements across Paris and his book is full of evocative descriptions of quiet squares and bustling streets where she might have spent some time.
In comparison with the Avenue de Saint-Mandé, the Avenue Picpus, on the right, is cold and desolate. Treeless, as I remember. Ah, the loneliness of returning on those Sunday evenings.
From the first page it is clear that the city of Paris assumes the status of a character – and as readers we can follow the narrator’s (and Dora’s) movements on a map.
If we are familiar with Paris, we can picture where they are. By tracing Dora’s possible steps, Modiano evocatively recreates the twilight atmosphere of Paris under occupation.
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
A Fine Balance is a sprawling narrative that takes the reader all the way to the Indian subcontinent.
Set initially in 1975 during the emergency government period and then during the chaotic times of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Mistry’s novel focuses on the lives of four central characters whose lives are on a downward spiral, from poverty to outright destitution and, ultimately, death.
Mistry does not whitewash the reality of urban poverty in India. His narrative does not hide away from disease or overcrowded slums with “rough shacks” standing “beyond the railroad fence, alongside a ditch running with raw sewage”. His are not places where we might want to be. But as readers, we become utterly engrossed in his characters’ lives – we hope with them, we fear for them and, at the end, we cry for them.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante’s novels take me straight to my favourite city of Napoli. Starting with My Brilliant Friend, the four novels chart the intensive relationship between two girls, Elena “Lenù” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo, who grow up in a poor neighbourhood in the 1950s.
Reading Ferrante’s sprawling narrative conjures up images of Napoli and makes me feel like I am standing in the Piazza del Plebiscito or having an espresso in the historic Caffè Gambrinus. Together with Lenù, I can see Vesuvio across the Bay of Naples, the:
delicate pastel-colored shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-coloured slice of the Castel dell’Ovo, and the sea.
I can feel, hear and smell Napoli around me. Reading about the city might not be as good as being there in person; but, at the moment, it is a close second.
Of course, books can’t stop a global pandemic. But, for a short while, they can let us forget the world around us and, instead, transport us to different places, allowing us to at least travel in spirit.