There are moments when you just need to escape to another place or another time. The following ten titles will do just that as they send you on a journey around the globe. Sometimes a book that takes you to a far corner of the world teaches you more about yourself than you would expect. Happy traveling.
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
With prose that borders on poetry, Roy takes you to India through the story of twins Estha and Rahel. They traverse a series of childhood tragedies, including the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol, who does a “secret cartwheel in her coffin” that only Rahel sees. The God of Small Things is raw and beautiful at the same time as the narration circles upon itself. At the last word, I found myself turning immediately back to the first page, and I appreciated it all even more.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – Lisa See
At seven years of age, Lily undergoes foot binding one year later than most girls as the diviner sees “something special in Lily.” Because of Lily’s exceptionally small and beautiful bound feet, her family procures her a laotong – a girl from another village to correspond with – a step up from the sworn sisterhood usually secured for women of Lily’s social status. Lily and Snow Flower, her laotong, share their hopes, dreams, successes and failures in the women’s secret language of nu shu. It’s not only the foot binding that left a knot in my stomach; when their friendship is tested by a misunderstanding, Lily finally comes to see the dark truth behind the beautiful characters in Snow Flower’s nu shu writing.
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
In North Korea, Pak Jun Do helps his father in a work camp for orphans. The quick instincts that allow him to survive in that scenario do not go unnoticed by government officials and soon he is forced to work for the state, kidnapping others, while navigating the treacherous underground he has become a part of. Because of their strong resemblance, Jun Do he is forced to assume the persona of Comrade Buc, opponent of Kim Jong Il, when Buc is killed. In his role as “Comrade Buc,” Jun Do meets a famous singer from Pongyan, falls in love and makes it his goal to secure her safety. This thrilling story of espionage, torture, duplicity and survival kept me on the edge of my seat as it provided a fictional glimpse into one of the most secretive nations on earth.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of my favorite books of all time, Marquez’s magical realism delights and astounds. Wars, torrid love triangles, and a band of roving gypsies are all a part of the Buendia family history, told to the reader in segments over the course of the novel. Insomnia plagues, floods, and an overly zealous religious daughter in law cannot shake the Buendia clan. The story takes place in Macondo, a fictional city in Colombia, where Ursula, the matriarch of the family, holds her brood together for more than one hundred years.
The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht
Tea Obreht was only 26 when The Tiger’s Wife was published, yet it has a perspective and wisdom far beyond those years. Natalia has a special bond with her grandfather, who encourages her in her profession as a physician. But when her grandfather dies, Natalia travels through the Balkan region looking for answers about the strange circumstances of his death. I love how this story is narrated through the legends Natalia’s grandfather told her in her childhood including tales of “the deathless man” and, finally, “the tiger’s wife.” It’s greatest gift is leaving you to wonder if there really is a clean line between myth and reality.
The History of Love – Nicole Krauss
In Poland, Leo Gursky falls in love with the girl next door, but she is sent to American for a better life. Gursky never relinquishes his love over the years, coming to new York as soon as he is able, and spends decades searching for the woman he loves. As his emotions run deep, Gursky’s writes a book about her, stating: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” At the same time, as Alma Singer, fourteen, watches her mother lovingly translate a book from Spanish to English, she sets out to find the author whose words have touched her mother so deeply. I think this might be one of the greatest love stories ever written as paths intersect and hearts meet again across the oceans.
The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Sympathizer is a complex and layered tale of a man who escapes Viet Nam only to act as a double agent in America, reporting on his fellow Vietnamese refugees. Remaining anonymous throughout the novel, he describes himself as a “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces” and “a man of two minds.” It is gripping and suspenseful, telling of love and betrayal. Nguyen’s words lured me into this double-sided world and kept me hooked on every syllable.
A Long Way Gone – Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah tells the true story of his life as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. This moving memoir is tragic and shocking as Beah recounts gruesome details of what he, and other children, were forced to do at the hands of the government army. The descriptions haunt the reader, as they must haunt Beah, but there is hope; he writes this book from his “second lifetime” that he has been granted in the United States. I found this to be a quick but heavy read.
Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys
Lina is fifteen when she is forced from her home in Lithuania in the dark of night. The secret police take her and her family to a forced labor camp in Siberia, separating her from her father. An artist, Lina draws pictures that she hopes will reach her father, her illustrations clues to where she and her family have been taken, hoping they will eventually reunited. This historical fiction chilled me from the first line, “They took me in my nightgown,” through to the end as Lina fights for those she loves to survive.
Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie
If you haven’t yet read a novel by Chimamanda Adichie, I am jealous of you. There is nothing quite like the first time you hear the sound of her words and the cadence of her language. In Americanah, Adichie tells the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who leaves her country, family, and boyfriend behind in search of a better university experience in America. Adichie narrates the journey between continents, countries, races, and cultures. Nigeria and the United States are depicted, unapologetically, in all of their splendor and ugliness. The countries are vastly different and exactly the same all at once, showing that it is our humanity that unites us.