I’m one of those readers who loves her books to be peopled with strong characters. They don’t necessarily have to be believable (some of the best characters are too eccentric or kooky to be real), but they do need to be sharply drawn and three-dimensional. No cardboard cut-outs in my novels, please.
But I also love reading fiction in which the setting is just as important as any character. My location soft spots are New York, Venice, Ireland and Australia, probably because they represent special places in my heart, but it doesn’t really matter where stories are set, just as long as the sense of place is detailed and distinct.
Here’s my top 10 novels where the location is key (arranged in alphabetical order by book title) — hyperlinks take you to my full review:
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Once described as the book that Charles Dickens was too afraid to write, The Crimson Petal and the White depicts the rise and fall of a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian-era London. As one would expect from a story about the sordid world of an 1870s “working woman”, it is lewd and bawdy, and the language can, at times, be crude. But the highlight of this 800-page epic is the way in which Faber brings the city to life. The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air. The novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope – or want – to visit.
Eight Months on Ghazza Street by Hilary Mantel
Set in the secret, repressive world of Saudi Arabia, this novel won’t exactly have you planning a trip to Jeddah any time soon, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a culture so different from our own. Based on Mantel’s first-hand experience of living in the kingdom, it has a real ring of authenticity to it. She depicts a world that is both restrictive and claustrophobic, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything and the rights of women do not exist. British expat Frances Shore, a cartographer forbidden to work because of her gender, finds herself becoming increasingly paranoid as she lives her new life virtually under “house arrest”. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, she begins to hear unexplained noises – a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around – and becomes convinced that something illegal is going on. But no one, including her husband, believes her. A psychological thriller of the finest order, this is the kind of story that really gets under the skin.
New York must be one of the most popular cities to depict in fiction, but few have depicted it in the same way as Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable, Forever spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
This Booker Prize-winning novel is set among a houseboat community moored on the Thames, just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s King’s Road, in the early 1960s. Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead. She gives the river a sense of romance, of history, of danger. And she peoples the story with a cast of eccentric, but wholly believable, characters, as you would expect from those who chose to live in a kind of netherworld, neither belonging to land nor water.
The highways and byways of rural New South Wales during the Great Depression are the focus of this Australian classic recently republished by Penguin. The central character, Macauley, is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer, who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). Accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee” (a slang word for burden), Macauley’s quiet, frugal lifestyle is tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down. As well as being a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship, the book details a bygone way of life and showcases the beauty and terror of the Australian landscape in all her glory – think wide brown paddocks, swaying gum trees, dusty gravel roads, exotic wildlife, brilliant sunshine and unexpected thunderstorms.
Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson
This is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Based on the life of the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”, the book is best described as a “literary romance”. But don’t let that put you off. The rich, vivid descriptions of Corfu – the violet trumpets of morning glory growing everywhere, the tangerine sunsets over the water, the scent of jasmine on the night air – will have you planning your next summer holiday before you’ve even got to the last page.
Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason
This is the first in an ongoing series of police procedurals, written by a former journalist, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Erlendur Sveinsson is the morose detective in charge of the investigation into the mysterious death of an old man with a sordid past. The Icelandic location is particularly important, not just for the brooding, melancholy atmosphere it provides, but because the plot hinges on the scientific work being done at the country’s Genetic Research Centre (the Icelandic population is believed to be the most homogeneous society in the world). Tautly written with a fast-paced narrative, this is one of the first novels of the 21st century that heralded a new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction to hit British shores.
That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
The Irish countryside has never felt more alive, nor more beautiful, than in this book by the late, great John McGahern. The story mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders, Kate and Joe, who flee the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way. It is a beautiful, slow-moving story that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature. In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. And it also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
The rugged beauty of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century is the setting of this award-winning novel, which is part crime fiction, part epic adventure tale. In a frontier township on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a French settler is found murdered in his shack. His neighbour decides to track down the killer when her teenage son is accused of the crime. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse hunt across some of the most isolated, and dangerous, terrain on earth. Penney’s descriptions of the landscape, the coldness – and the fear – are pitch-perfect. The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany
Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building. Written by an Egyptian dentist-turned-novelist, the book has been a bestseller throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments. All the while Aswany shines his perceptive eye on the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.
So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend that feature evocative locations? What is missing from my list?