Around the world in 8 novels for Memorial Day
It feels surreal to remember the frequency and ease (for those who could afford it) of jetting off to new places. Which isn’t to say the resulting experience was always enriching or beneficial. Certain forms of tourism can feel like imperialism, and it is difficult to “know” a place if all you see are its shiny surfaces.
Certain novels, too, can still feel exploitative, but the best fictional journeys — those in which the author deeply understands a country and its people — may be better and more empathetic than the not-so-real thing. And best of all in 2020, they are fully shelter-at-home compliant.
These eight books, telling stories set in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean, all represent globe-trotting fiction at its best. In fact, hundreds of such books — set on the African continent, in South America, Asia or Australia and New Zealand — are out there for the reader on the hunt for these experiences. But this small sampling left particularly profound impressions on me, and they are excellent places to embark on a journey that must, for now, begin at home.
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Many English-language novels about Vietnam focus on the years when Americans fought there, but this multi-generation familial saga goes decades further back. In one of the country’s northernmost provinces, Diệu Lan is born in 1920 into a well-respected and wealthy family in a village whose name means “Forever Blessed.” A childhood encounter with a fortune teller hints at hard times to come, and when the Japanese occupy the area during World War II, she sees his prophecies come to pass. As the narration alternates between Diệu Lan and her granddaughter, Hương, readers follow them through lush forests and crowded streets as they experience Vietnam’s troubled century.
Iron Towns by Anthony Cartwright
Notions of England as a single country fall away the farther out the tourist ventures from London. The coal seams beneath the ridges and rivers of the Midlands fired the engine of the Industrial Revolution — before that engine rusted out. In “Iron Towns,” set in that Black Country, an earthbound constellation of characters orbit Liam Corwen, a local football (soccer) player who has returned to his hometown club after one brief moment with the national team. On Liam’s body, multiple tattoos recount the history of a sport that many a working-class boy dreams will save him — just as the town’s stadium memorializes the community’s former glory.
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Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje explores the gorgeous geography and brutal history of his native Sri Lanka in the story of a young woman who returns after leaving the island as a child. Anil seeks respite from her work documenting war crimes and hopes to find it in the island’s rain-soaked emerald countryside and soft sand beaches. She meets Sarath, an archaeologist excavating holy ground where generations of monks have been buried. When Anil and Sarath discover bones that don’t belong at the site, their investigation exposes the scars of the civil war.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
This novel by the screenwriter who would go on to co-create HBO’s “Game of Thrones” begins when an American asks his grandfather about his experience under the Siege of Leningrad. He responds with the story of the near-impossible mission assigned to two prisoners awaiting execution. Lev and Kolya will regain their freedom if they can find a dozen eggs for an impending wedding’s cake. It would be easier to find a hen’s proverbial teeth, but as their search leaves the familiar backstreets of Leningrad for forests overhung by millions of stars that shed no light, subversive humor inflects the horror with hope.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie was awarded Britain’s Orange Prize for her sophomore novel, a sweeping tale of her native Nigeria, a land of highland forests and flooded savannas. Adichie immerses readers in the events that precipitated the Biafran Civil War. Against a backdrop of political, cultural and social upheaval, Adichie plays out the conflict and its repercussions in her characters’ private lives and their relationships with others. And yet, despite the chaos, emotional bonds provide life-saving shelter.
We know. We know. You want to look away, but you can’t.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Dedé, Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria are devoted sisters. During stultifying summers they find relief in the cool of a nearby lagoon. But at a new school in the fall, Minerva learns disturbing — but unofficial — truths about the school’s patron, Dominican Jefe Rafael Trujillo. Awakened to the injustices perpetrated by the nation’s dictator, the sisters make a pledge to work against him — a pledge that will cost the Mirabal family dearly.
Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
“there is an alley/ where the boys who were in love with me/ still loiter with the same unkempt hair,” wrote the poet Forugh Farrokhzad. In Darznik’s passionate novel, we meet the woman who shocked 1950s Tehran by rebelling against an arranged marriage and embracing the creative life. Tehran before the 1979 revolution was a vibrant cultural center in which the arts flourished, but it wasn’t a safe place to have a public love affair; the same struggles that marked the women’s movement in the West emerged in Iran. Farrokhzad’s poems both scandalized and inspired her city; Darznik inspires us anew.
God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Léger
Leger’s narrative-in-reverse begins in the midst of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake where neighborhoods full of hibiscus flowers and almond trees became “fog and dust.” At the center of the story is a ménage à trois: Natasha and Alain’s relationship is interrupted by her pragmatic decision to marry the president of Haiti, who is a fan of her artwork. Other characters join the scene, including a Hollywood “star” offering to help and religious figures claiming Haiti’s misfortune is proof of God’s love. But Léger keeps his keen eye on ordinary people forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances.
Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.
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