Reading and travel have always been linked. In the days where travel to a foreign land involved months at sea, arduous treks or weeks on horseback, explorers would bring home tales of their discoveries to the delight of readers at home. Even today, with ever increasing transport links, cheap fares and business opportunities worldwide, the easiest way to travel involves opening a book and jumping into another city, culture or country, potentially anywhere in the world. Despite the plethora of travel guides, works of history, guide books and magazines, novels still remain one of the most effective ways to cross borders. Fiction, with its tendency to focus on the quotidian allows readers to see both the commonality of human life worldwide and its exotic diversity, sometimes more so than a visit in person. In no particular order I have put together my favourite contemporary novels that best take the reader far from what they know without any need for travel…
1. The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall
Set in the colourful metropolis of modern New Delhi, Tarquin Hall’s amusing series feature the lovable Punjabi crime-buster, Vish Puri. Known for his love of Sandown caps, chutney-covered pakoras, salty lassis and his trusty chauffeur-driven Ambassador, there is no one like Vish Puri, private investigator extraordinaire (confidentiality is his watchword) , when a mystery needs solving. The perfect holiday read, especially on a trip to India, Hall is at his best when perfectly capturing the wonderful nuances of Hinglish and the many different stratas of Delhi society, from the interfering Mummy-ji’s and retired brigadiers of the Gymkhana Club to the city’s many hard-working slum-dwellers and aspiring dot com millionaires.
2. Saturday by Ian McEwan
Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Ian McEwan’s Saturday is set over the course of a single day in the life of a successful neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. As Perowne goes about about his day preparing for a party later that evening he becomes caught up in London’s protest march against the war on terror and is then confronted by a violent outsider. Covering the complex themes of marriage, family, class, security, vulnerability, modern media and war, no other novel in recent years so successfully captures the anxieties and pleasures of day-to-day life in 21st century London.
3. The Dinner by Herman Koch
With only about 28 million people speaking Dutch worldwide, fiction from The Netherlands rarely manages to cross the channel into English publishing houses. A bestseller in its native country, Herman Koch’s The Dinner managed to buck the trend and has become a book club favorite across the English-speaking world. Dark and haunting, this intriguing novel focuses around the life of two brothers; one a future presidential candidate, the other a former teacher and now stay-at-home father. Although best described as a thriller, The Dinner provides readers with an insight into both contemporary Amsterdam life and the interesting global outlook of the Dutch which unfortunately, except for their love of canals, clogs and bicycles, not many people know an awful lot about.
4. Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga
Both a damning condemnation and a love letter to contemporary Mumbai, in Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga, author of the award-winning novel The White Tiger, wonderfully recreates this mad metropolis. With its money-hungry property developers of Malabar Hills and the penniless chai-wallahs from the city’s many slums, Last Man in Tower accurately portrays the stark contrasts found in one of the world’s fastest growing cities in what can only be described as Dickensian levels of detail. Centered around the residents of an apartment block who are being bribed to relocate, Last Man in Tower is reminiscent of The White Tiger’s pessimistic undertones and moralless conclusion, but also its authenticity and brilliance in conveying the multifaceted fabric of Indian city life.
5. Snowdrops by A. D. Miller
Snowdrops is a page-turning thriller that throws you at full speed into the bleak streets of Putin’s Moscow. Nicholas, an expat lawyer working on deals between foreign banks and Russian oil companies in the early part of the 21st century, enjoys the thrills on offer to Moscow’s wealthy inhabitants. However, a chance meeting on the underground with a femme fatale suddenly embroils him in the city’s murky underworld. At times a little too happy to trade on cultural stereotypes, Snowdrops is nonetheless an atmospheric and often accurate journey though Moscow from its vodka-drenched bars, extravagant boutiques and expensive restaurants to harsh strip clubs and sprawling oligarch’s homes.
6. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Provocative and prophetic, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap is a wonderful portrayal of suburban life in 21st century Melbourne. At a neighborhood barbecue a father loses control and slaps another couple’s child. Drama ensues as allegiances form and slowly a tight knit group of friends and family begins to unravel. Perfectly capturing the middle-class West’s modern obsession with parenting, this tongue-in-cheek novel sheds light on contemporary cosmopolitan life in one of Australia’s largest cities; from the nouveau riche ‘bogans’ and liberal breast-feeding mothers to restless adolescents and large close-knit Greek communities. Perfectly suited to the screen, with its many soap-like qualities of family drama, extra-marital affairs, gossip and hot-tempered violence, The Slap was recently made into a successful television series.
7. The Number One Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Now part of a hugely successful series, Alexander McCall’s humorous and highly entertaining novel centres around the lovable, but firm, Mma ‘Precious’ Ramotswe, Botswana’s number one lady detective. A traditionalist, instilled with strong moral values and admiral ethics, Mma Ramotswe, with the help of her loyal and loving friend, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, chief mechanic and proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, sees it as her mission to reinstate fast fading decency into the streets of Gaborone. Covering a range of far-flung themes from modernity, urbanism, HIV/AIDS, feminism, adultery, domestic violence and forgiveness, McCall Smith’s wonderfully philosophical book brings Botswana to life.
8. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The ultimate ‘state of the nation’ novel, Jonathan Franzen’s fourth book is a tour de force of 21st century America. Similarly to his early novel, The Corrections, Freedom focuses on the life of a dysfunction family and charts their individual stories through a maze of depression, marital infidelity, adolescence, career changes, domestic drudgery, births and deaths. As we learn more about the complex lives of our protagonists, the reader also learns more about what it means to be living in America today. With its portrayals of key contemporary issues (environmental fanaticism, energy constraints, the Iraq war, hungry capitalism and globalisation), Freedom is a satirical 21st century soap opera and an Updikean portrait of our times.
9. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
Despite the Israel/Palestine conflict making the news on a regular basis, the majority of English readers know little about the daily ins and outs of contemporary life in Israel. An unexpected success, the first novel by 25 year old Boianjiu traces the lives of three Israeli school friends, Lea, Avishag and Yael from their boy-obsessed school days to unwanted but compulsory conscription with the Israeli army. Told in an off-hand, often comic prose, The People of Forever sees the girls working on the Isreali/Egyptian border, a West Bank checkpoint and as a weapon’s instructor. Primarily a coming of age novel, The People of Forever opens the audiences eyes to the complexity of the modern Israeli state.
10. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Moshin Hamid
Written by the award-winning author of the much acclaimed The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Rich in Rising Asia is modeled on the continent’s increasingly popular business self-help books. Set in 21st century Pakistan, in How to Get Rich Moshin Hamid traces the story of a nameless protagonist from his poor rural background to increasing success as a new-wave entrepreneur in the big city (assumed to be Lahore). As with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid challenges convention and traditional stereotypes and opens the reader’s eyes to to this complex country which has so much more to offer than the narrow Western view of bearded terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists.
Cover photo courtesy of www.bibliophileathome.wordpress.com