We all to love read books from the travel writing section of our local bookshops and libraries to inspire and feed our desire to travel. Real-life travelogues can educate, inform and amuse. But here’s the thing, so can novels that have travelling as their principal focus. Whilst they might be ‘not real’, by definition, the unique dialogue between novel reader and writer can certainly provoke thought and emotional responses to travel in a way no other medium of art can.
I sincerely hope that I am yet to discover the greatest travel novel out there. But with an English Literature degree to my name and my day job being a librarian, here are some great novels about travelling that I heartily recommend. Remember, this is just one guy’s opinion!
Forget the less-than-great Leonardo Dicaprio movie. Alex Garland’s debut novel – and still his finest work – explores the dichotomy between the romantic idyll of backpacking, and the darker corners that can be found in its less glamorous reality. As much a meditation on whether it is ever possible to escape civilisation’s corrupting grasp as it is a tale about the seedier side of the backpacker lifestyle, Garland’s mastery of pace and plot ensures this is truly unputdownable.
From an author perhaps better known for edgy, cerebral thrillers set both at home and abroad, this lesser-known work is something of a hidden, humorous classic. The emotionally-repressed narrator, Henry, meets his long-forgotten Aunt at his mother’s funeral, and soon finds himself extricated from his comfortable-but-dull lifestyle and travelling the globe with his more carefree Aunt, learning plenty of life lessons and gaining emotional and psychological fulfilment along the way.
Not just a seminal work in the field of travel literature but one of the most iconic novels of the 20th century, Kerouac’s classic is the definitive road trip tale. As part of the ‘Beat Generation’ movement railing against the dominant cultural values of the day, On the Road reads like a long, continuous cry for liberation and break from convention. At its heart is the relationship between narrator Sal and his friend Dean, the sometimes-troubled nature of which highlights the imperfections inherent in such bohemian ‘quests’ for spiritual fulfilment.
Dark in tone – sometimes this can feel like a nightmare story to deter any who read it from ever considering travelling again – this novel is masterfully evocative, largely thanks to Bowles having lived most of his life in Morocco. Kit and Port are a couple attempting to repair their rocky marriage, but naïve and oblivious to the inherent dangers of the wilds of the desert, they put themselves in a truly desperate situation. Despite its cautionary tone, Bowles’ descriptions of the rural and urban landscapes of this magical country will make you want to travel there.
As a school librarian, it would be remiss of me to not include a YA travel novel on this list. The Island follows three gap-year students on a trip to India. What starts out as an experience-of-a-lifetime quickly sours when one of their number finds himself accused of murdering a girl he had met mere days before. Singleton expertly intersperses the present day narrative with flashbacks to how the three met back in their home country, resulting in a taut and well-written thriller, where the central characters’ motivations to travel underpin the action.
Another novel set in Morocco, but I make no apologies for this as in terms of tone and subject matter, this could not be any further away from Bowles’ novel. Drawing on her own childhood experiences, Freud spins a yarn about a mother and her two daughters upping sticks and relocating to Marrakech to start anew, and the rifts her new lifestyle choices cause within the trio. By turns funny and sad, it’s very hard not to be drawn in by this charming tale.
Arguably one of the very earliest examples of travel literature, Conrad’s novella – the inspiration for Apocalypse Now – has deservedly earned its status among the classic literary canon. On the face of it a simple tale about a merchant captain seeking a missing ivory trader in the heart of central Africa, this is really a story about the ‘darkness’ that can be found among both the natives and the supposedly more civilised Westerners. The questions it poses about human nature are uncomfortable, and the lack of any clear answers even more unsettling.
What travel novels do you enjoy reading? Would love to hear some suggestions below, to put in my backpack for my next trip!