Whether you're a jet-setter or an armchair traveller, the 80 works chosen by Henry Russell in Around the World in 80 Novels conjure up the spirit of magical locations from all over the globe. Here are a just a few inspirational reads to fuel your wanderlust and lead you on your next adventure!
One of the narrators, Vianne Rocher, accompanied by her six-year-old daughter, Anouk, takes over a disused bakery in a village in southwestern France and turns it overnight into a chocolate shop. The premises stand just opposite the church, and they open in their new guise at the start of Lent, the season of abstinence in the Christian faith. This strikes the other narrator, Francis Reynaud, the local priest, as at least a challenge to his authority and at worst ﬂagrant blasphemy. He’s right to be suspicious, because Vianne Rocher is a witch.
However, rather than pyrotechnic wizardry, her supernatural powers take the form of psychological insights—she has a reliable sense of what people desire. Vianne’s sorcery is based on intuition rather than hocus-pocus, but it’s no less powerful for that. Chocolat is magical realism plus real magic.
The village setting is described in the opening pages as “no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux.” But it turns out to be one of those blips that many seem to notice: in 2012 the book’s author, Joanne Harris (b. 1964), expressed surprise in The Independent newspaper that “lots of people have told me they’ve been to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes; they’re convinced they’ve found it, and that they’ve been to the chocolate shop. One woman even wrote to say she had her wedding there.” Why surprise? Because Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is the author’s invention; there is no such place.
That it seems real is a tribute to imagination—mainly Harris’s, but also that of the people who think they’ve been there. Certainly there are plenty of places in southern Aquitaine and the Gers department of the Occitanie region that may have provided some of the raw material for Harris’s village and that now, in turn, aspire to be locations in her fable. Harris has hinted that she based Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on one particular village, but she has never said which one. Naturally there is plenty of speculation, and the place with the shortest odds is Nérac, which is well worth seeing even if it’s not the one she had in mind.
Central to this complex novel is the walk across Israel from north to south, starting in Galilee, undertaken by a mother and the father of one of her children. That they never make it even as far as Jerusalem may be taken as symbolic in a novel that endeavours to cast light on a road with no visible ending. The Israeli author, David Grossman (b. 1954), captures, or at least momentarily reveals, something of the essence of the Arab–Israeli conﬂict—not only that between the two peoples but also the conﬂict within individual Jews—in all its bewildering and often dispiriting intractability.
The heroine, Ora, meets Ilan and Avram during the 1967 Six-Day War while they are patients in a fever hospital, and the three become friends. Ora later settles down with Ilan and they have a son, Adam. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Avram is captured and tortured by the Egyptians. He returns home traumatized by his experience. Ilan has meanwhile left Ora, so she moves in with Avram until she falls pregnant, whereupon he kicks her out. She gives birth to another son, Ofer; Ilan returns and he and Ora bring up both boys. Avram never sees his son, and has no contact with Ora for many years.
When the children reach the age of conscription, Adam does his time in the army and then heads off with his father on vacation to South America. Ofer stays on in uniform after the compulsory service period and volunteers to take part in Israel’s 2006 attack on Hezbollah Shi’as in Lebanon. Horriﬁ ed by Ofer’s choice, Ora ﬁnds Avram, now a near derelict, and drags him with her on her walk. She takes every possible precaution against receiving information from the outside world, thinking that as long as she keeps walking she cannot receive the news she dreads—that Ofer has been killed in action.
Ora and Avram walk part of the northern section of the Israel National Trail, a path that is roughly 680 miles (1,100km) long between Kibbutz Dan, near the Lebanon frontier at the foot of Mount Hermon, and Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba. The sights along their route are affectionately described, but the landmarks they pass most frequently are memorials to the dead from all the conﬂicts since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Thailand’s tourist trade began as a trickle in the 1960s and quickly turned into a torrent. In many of the years since then, Bangkok has welcomed more foreign visitors than any other city in the world apart from London.
Provincial Thailand quickly developed to meet increasing demand. The most easily accessible of the hundreds of islands along the coast soon became resorts with all mod cons, aspiring to attract Western vacationers who were looking for something more exotic than southern Spain. But one of the joys of Thailand is that there are other islands that have yet to be commercialized, and it was to such undiscovered gems that Western budget travellers beat a path in the 1980s and ’90s.
One such adventurer is Richard, the hero of this novel by Alex Garland (b. 1970). Accompanied by a young French couple, he strikes out from Bangkok’s Khao San Road, “a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West”—and goes in search of a secret beach on a hard-to-reach island off Koh Samui. Once there they discover that it’s only a semi-idyll, as it is divided into two zones: an area for sybarites and a cannabis farm guarded by armed criminals. When the two communities rub up against each other, it falls to Richard to patrol the frontier of his territory. This task enables him to play out real-life versions of his beloved Atari and Nintendo video games and indulge his fantasies about the Vietnam War, a conﬂict that he knows about only through movies such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986).
The Beach is a highly readable adventure story with suspense, jeopardy, pursuit, escape, blood and gore, and drugs. The only item missing from the expected features of a blockbuster is sex, which is conspicuous by its absence from all but the opening scene in Bangkok.
These extracts are from Around the World in 80 Novels by Henry Russell. To get more great blog posts like this one - direct to your inbox – be sure to sign up to our mailing list here.