Travelling the World through Books

Photo: Triff via Shutterstock

A young girl runs away to search for the illegitimate child she has had to give up. A boy leaves his family to look for his older brother. A woman tries to build bridges with her estranged son. A man tries to make sense of his younger brother’s death.

When I reduce these four novels to one-sentence descriptions, they all have something in common. These are universal stories, all dealing with family ties. But if you dig deeper, you will find that the novels are from different parts of the world and are rooted in their settings.

The young girl looking for her child is Rayhana, a Bedouin girl in Mauritania, who steals her tribe’s sacred drum as punishment for taking her child from her. The boy looking for his brother is 10-year-old Jonathan, who stows away on a truck in Brunei. The woman with an estranged son is Betty, who lives in Trinidad with her son Solo and lodger Mr. Chetan, all of whom are dealing with emotional traumas. And the man in the last example is an unnamed narrator in Uruguay, whose brother was killed in one of the biggest storms to hit the country’s coast.[1]

These examples illustrate the way stories can be universal and particular to a country at the same time. This sense of discovery is one of the joys of reading.  

Some years ago, I started actively looking for books from countries around the world. As a result, I found books I might not otherwise have read, such as poetry from the Marshall Islands, St. Lucia and Zambia; novels from Angola, Estonia and Guyana; and memoirs from Burkina Faso, Nicaragua and the Republic of Congo.

To share this journey with my readers, I have put together a list that categorizes books on this blog by country. The list has been a long time in the making and is still a work in progress. It is selective (sort of, anyway). For the most part, I have included books that have a strong sense of place. In some cases, where the literature of a country is not well-known in the anglophone world—such as Serbia and Uzbekistan—I have included books by authors from the country.

Putting the list together has got me thinking about the richness of world literature, the doors that open up when you start to explore writing from parts of the world that you might not be familiar with. It also made me think about how stories from different regions are linked, and how, at the same time, they are distinct. And that led to the list with which I began this piece.

One of my favourite genres is crime fiction. The genre tends to follow a pattern with occasional variations. But a good writer can use the framework to write about social issues (like Henning Mankell did for Sweden, for example) and can bring alive the social mores and culture of a place.

In The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross, Digger, who works for a homicide squad, is haunted by the death of his mother, who disappeared during a demonstration and was probably killed by the police. In We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day, Ivana Bodrožić’s protagonist—a Croatian journalist—deals with the aftermath of the war that broke up Yugoslavia. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill takes us to pre-independence India, and into the world behind the zenana, the part of the house reserved for women in a Muslim household. In The Dry, Jane Harper writes about the desperation of a town in the Australian Outback that is suffering from drought.

There are also plenty of non-fiction books. Apart from the memoirs listed above, there are works from Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.

And of course, there are travel books. These include Nick Hunt’s Outlandish, in which he explores Europe’s unlikely landscapes; Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the US, a journey that helps her heal; and Colin Thubron’s book on following the Amur River that runs between Russia and China; and many more.

I could go on, but I will let you explore the list for yourself. I hope that it will provide plenty of inspiration and take you to many interesting places.  

If you have suggestions for books, especially from countries not represented here, please leave a comment. Thank you for coming with me on this journey!

[1] The books are: The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, Written in Black by K.H. Lim, Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud, and Older Brother by Daniel Mella.

Related posts

See also The 2014 Reading Challenge. In 2014 Kristine Goulding suggested reading a book from every country in the world. Several readers signed up (you will find some of their reviews on this blog.) This is the piece that kicked it off.

Listen to the episode Reading the World where some of the participants in the reading challenge share passages from their favourite book. The episode is part of Reading for Our Times, a podcast curated by Usha Raman.

Read the interview with Ann Morgan, who inspired the reading challenge.

4 thoughts on “Travelling the World through Books

  1. susan t landry

    can’t wait to delve into this list, Suroor! (havent looked at it yet.) you are a treasure trove!

    i hope you are having beautiful springtime weather, as we finally are, here in Maine.

    all best wishes,


    Susan T. Landry

    Medical Manuscript Editor Creative Writing Copy Editor Creative Writer:

    Bath ME 04530

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