No matter how sparkling a story is or how charismatic its characters, sometimes it’s the setting that steals the show. Vivid descriptions of the changing seasons or a flaming sunset viewed from a palm-fringed beach have our imaginations working overtime. Listed are seven novels, and literary landscapes, that transport the reader to another time and place.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)
The plot: set on the Greek island of Kefalonia, Louis de Bernières tale of love and war is 25 years old next year. A young officer arrives with the invading Italian army and finds himself billeted at the local doctor’s house, where he soon falls for the man’s daughter, Pelagia, who is already engaged to a Greek resistance fighter.
The place: the star of the novel, and the 2001 film, is Kefalonia itself. Photogenic harbour villages such as Fiskardo and Assos compete for visitors’ attention, along with a clutch of dreamy beaches such as Myrtos, which is frequently included in lists celebrating the world’s most breathtaking stretches of sand. Fortunately, the largest island in the Ionian group is relatively untouched by mass tourism.
The Great Gatsby (1925)
The plot: Jay Gatsby’s one aim in life is to win back lost love Daisy Buchanan. To achieve this, he makes his fortune, moves into an enormous Gothic mansion in West Egg, on Long Island, and throws no-expense-spared parties for rich young things.
The place: West Egg might be a fictional location but Long Island certainly isn’t. Once known as the Gold Coast, a stretch of the north shore is littered with properties that hint at how New York’s wealthy lived in the Roaring Twenties. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald gained inspiration after visiting Oheka Castle, one of many opulent Long Island addresses now available for hire as events venues. You can even celebrate your wedding there – which is more than the Great Gatsby himself did.
River of Time (1995)
The plot: British journalist Jon Swain’s harrowing memoir describes the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Many expats who had the opportunity to get out of Cambodia had done so but for Swain and a handful of old Indochina hands, who would have had to leave loved ones and a country they adored, fleeing wasn’t an option. Swain was portrayed by Julian Sands in the 1984 film The Killing Fields.
The place: to grasp the horrors committed by the Pol Pot-led regime, head to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school used as a prison and place of interrogation and mass torture during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
Outside the capital, the Choeung Ek Killing Fields were the site of 17,000 executions – the skulls of 8,000 victims are arranged behind glass panels at a memorial stupa. For something less distressing, numerous boat operators offer tours that provide a glimpse of life along the river of time itself: the muddy Mekong.
Our Man in Havana (1958)
The plot: struggling to make ends meet, Jim Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman based in Havana, Cuba, agrees to moonlight as a secret agent and recruit local spies for the British government. The espionage game proves more difficult than anticipated, however, and without any leads, Wormold fabricates a network of agents and sends his bosses faked military intelligence reports and confidential drawings, which are, in fact, sketches of vacuum cleaner parts.
The place: Graham Greene’s black comedy was published a year before Fidel Castro was sworn in as prime minister of Cuba. Visit Havana today and, in many respects, little has changed. Wormold would recognise the (now classic) American cars, decaying buildings and even some of the bars.
In the novel we learn that “No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe’s because it was the rendezvous of tourists”. It still is, but that shouldn’t stop you from calling in at one of Wormold’s watering holes and ordering a daiquiri – his favourite tipple.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)
The plot: on learning the impoverished Durbeyfield family are related to the aristocratic D’Urbervilles, “Sir” John sends his daughter, Tess, to claim kin, but things soon take a turn for the worse. Ahead of its time in many ways, Thomas Hardy’s classic raises the issue of women’s rights and the role of marriage, and highlights the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual morality.
The place: Tess is set in semi-fictitious Wessex, much of which is part of modern-day Dorset, in England’s southwest. Pretty villages with thatched cottages, grand manor houses, rolling hills and dramatic seascapes draw fans to “Hardy Country”. Unfortunately, popular sightseeing spots such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door have become plagued with high-season overcrowding, traffic gridlock and littering.
Out of Africa (1937)
The plot: Karen Blixen’s memoir tells of her life, loves and the hardships of managing a perennially unprofitable coffee estate in British East Africa, from 1914 until she returned to Denmark, in 1931. Blixen, who used Isak Dinesen as her nom de plume, has come under scrutiny for describing the “natives” she employed as a “stupendous obligation”, although she also talks of “heroic friendships”. Out of Africa was made into the multi-Oscar-winning film in 1985.
The place: British East Africa, or Kenya, as it became known in 1920, is renowned for the talcum-powder sands and turquoise seas of the Indian Ocean coast, the spectacular Kenyan Highlands, which straddle the equator, and most of all, for its big game safaris. Fans of the novel shouldn’t miss the Karen Blixen Museum, situated at the foot of the Ngong Hills, near the capital, Nairobi.
The God of Small Things (1997)
The plot: Arundhati Roy’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel centres on the childhood experiences of twins Rahel and Estha, and their extended family. The narrative weaves themes of romance and politics with social issues such as gender and caste-based discrimination.
The place: Roy describes the Indian state of Kerala in vivid detail. Much of the story takes place in the village of Ayemenem, which is a hop and a skip from the enchanting 900km network of interconnected canals, rivers and lakes known as the backwaters. The state is currently dealing with the effects of catastrophic floods but don’t let that stop you booking a trip there in the future.