My heart goes to The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng from Malaysia, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2007. The complicated history and the beauty of the geography he describes haunts me. I hope to visit Penang one day just because of this book. I also loved his second book, The Garden of the Evening Mists.
Esra Gul Jauch
I live in Thailand and would direct anyone interested in this amazing country to the novels of Christopher G Moore, crime fiction with a Thai twist. [They give an] insight into Thai culture, superstition and all the quirky things that contribute to make this place “the land of smiles”.
I recommend a neglected (albeit highly idiosyncratic) non-fiction classic, An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated from French by James Kirkup). You will learn something about Togo and much more about Greenland in the 1960s. Kpomassie writes engagingly about the clash of two non-western cultures without descending into tedious academese; he simply goes to Greenland and bluntly but charmingly describes what he experiences. It is also funny, in parts unintentionally, as when the author criticises the Greenlanders for their promiscuity while freely partaking of it.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra for a sense of modern, ambitious and often brutal India. The arc of the story is so vast, taking in modern day Mumbai, the 1993 riots, partition and the Sino-India war of 1962, all providing a backdrop for a cops and robbers story of real depth. Ganesh Gaitonde, the “hero”, is loosely based on Chhota Rajan, the (Hindu) gangster who left his Muslim bosses to set up a powerful rival outfit.
I’d suggest Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts for India. The author’s love and nostalgia for the subcontinent create the perfect mental pictures of the settings. This book creates a memory and longing for a home that was never there.
Jonathan Damon Hatfield
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield, and published as a Peirene Press novella. I read it travelling by train from Almaty to the Chinese border, discovering as I read that the story was set in that same, isolated area of the country. Ismailov evokes the (almost unchanged) landscape and a particularly brutal period of his country’s history with ferocious intensity. I read it in one sitting with my heart in my mouth.
Of all the books I read last year José Saramago’s Raised from the Ground (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) was the one that affected me the most. I was steeped in the lives of the fictional members of the Mau Tempo family from whom I learned so much about 20th-century Portuguese history and the struggles of the Alentejo peasants. In fact, through reading this novel I learned about the lives of poor people everywhere who are exploited as they cultivate the land.
Korea and Her Neighbours by Isabella Bird Bishop is fascinating, as it tells of a pre-Japanese invasion Korea in the 1890s – and she meets all, from peasants to the Korean royalty. Bishop herself is equally remarkable and this was not her first travel book. She was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographic Society. This book is as much a history book as a travelogue, complete with fascinating photographs.
Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy is fabulous; take one of the volumes with you [on your travels]. Start with Listening to the Wind. Splash out and stay at Ballynahinch; curl up and read a chapter by a smokey turf fire and walk yourself to near exhaustion next day in the surrounding boggy landscapes. You will not be disappointed.
The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz. Generations of Cairo history through the eyes of the population of a Cairo alley. Fantastic book by Egypt’s greatest writer
For Albania, it has to be Broken April by Ismail Kadare – a gloriously eerie and otherworldly insight on life in the Albanian highlands.
Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is a wonderful novel about the development of Toronto. He also writes beautifully about Sri Lanka in his memoir Running in the Family.
The under-appreciated Norman Lewis could occupy a category of his own here, but Voices of the Old Sea – about a Costa Brava fishing village in the early 50s just before the tourism boom – would be a worthy representative for Spain.
For a current review of Spain post civil war I recommend Jason Webster’s Guerra; you will never see Spain as just a tourist destination again. And it’s funny too, as his account of a television replay of a cup final, in a bar, testifies – portraying an attitude of tribal competitiveness.