Travel writer Anna Hart, author of DEPARTURES: A Guide to Letting Go, One Adventure at a Time on the books that belong in your suitcase…
You’re staring into your overstuffed suitcase, realising you only have room for one book. That’s the moment most of us ditch the heavy historical tome or hefty guidebook in favour of a friendlier volume. Yes, we want to be an informed traveller, clued-up on recent history, sensitive to social tensions, appreciative of the local cuisine. But we also want a book that will keep us entertained on long train journeys. A book that will keep us anchored, guiltlessly, to our sunlounger. A book that entices us to bed with a come-hither glance. Choosing your holiday reading is just as important as choosing a travel companion. Here’s my edit of the books that have plugged me into a destination and transformed my trip.
Greene is the master of tense spy novels, and he draws on his experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro to spin a complex tale of intrigue and counter-intrigue, jealousy, clashing political ideals and murder in colonial-era Saigon. Two white men – one an idealistic young CIA agent, another a cynical British reporter – fight for the attentions of a beautiful Vietnamese girl, and spar over the role of colonial powers in Asia. A gripping yarn that also serves as an introduction to Vietnam’s turbulent colonial past.
One of the most rich, absorbing and ambitious family sagas ever written, Allende’s debut tells the story of the Trueba family through the female line. By turns terrifying, amusing and sad, it’s unwaveringly entertaining, even as it functions as a vivid social history of Chile.
The genius of de Bernieres is that his novels impart social history lessons as if by osmosis. Similarly to his phenomenally successful Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, 2004’s Birds Without Wings pivots on an engaging, convincing love story – this time between a Christian beauty, Philothei, and her Muslim lover, Ibrahim, a goatherd – against the backdrop of the disintegration multi-faith, multi-nation Ottoman empire in the first world war.
Don’t assume that because this is a classic, it’s a bit of a snore; you’re missing a treat if you skip Blixen’s joyful memoir of her years on a coffee plantation from 1914 to 1931. The gutsy, eccentric baroness’s love of Kenya – its landscape, its wild animals, its people – is utterly infectious, each chapter an acutely observed, frequently hilarious and beautifully written account of a life less ordinary in a fascinating country.
Milan Kundera’s novels rewire your brain; you’ll never think about language, sex and politics the same way again. Written in exile in France in 1979 (Kundera’s books were banned in Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Revolution of 1989), Kundera veers between comedy and tragedy, sex and politics, and plot and philosophy in his third novel, about Czech citizens opposing the communist regime in various ways. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is cerebral, unmistakably Czech cynicism, yet oddly uplifting.
What Austen is to England, Flaubert is to France. This seminal work of realist fiction focuses on a pretty young doctor’s wife, Emma Bovary, whose romantic ideals and frustration at the banality of provincial life drives her into the arms of a rakish lover. Of course you want to know if she finds her Darcy…
Anna Hart’s of DEPARTURES: A Guide to Letting Go, One Adventure at a Time is published by Sphere and is available to buy online here. You can find out more about Anna on her site, or follow her on Instagram @anndothart. (Cover pic thanks to the uber-talented Daisy Buchanan.)