Every tale ever told depends in some way on isolation. No matter whether a novel is set in a hectic city or a pastoral village or a single claustrophobic room, that book’s author has to build a narrative container for its characters so we readers understand where our focus should be: We pay attention to these people, this conflict, and not all that other potentially interesting stuff out there. After all, one book can’t fit every person and place in the world. The solar system. The universe. Beyond! No, writers must limit themselves, choose what to include and what to leave out, in order to tell their stories.
Of course, that container can take any shape. A novelist might set their book in as tight a space as one person’s mind. She might place her story within a marriage, as Lauren Groff does in the split narrative of Fates and Furies, or a family line, as Yaa Gyasi does in her multigenerational epic Homegoing. Writers sometimes build a physical structure around their characters: a mansion in The Haunting of Hill House, a train in Murder on the Orient Express, a reform school, a whaling ship, an asylum, a gulag. Or writers choose the limits of geography.
Settings with natural boundaries—islands surrounded by ocean, peninsulas cut off by mountains, oases in the desert—have shaped some of the most exciting books in print today. This list brings you eight novels perfectly limited by geographic barriers. The stories below are set in places remote to most of their readers, yet the skill of their authors, the bold lines of their containers and the sharp focus on what happens within, make them compelling to us all.
1. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The island novel against which all others are measured. In this 1954 classic, a group of British schoolboys is marooned after a plane crash in the Pacific. Stranded far from the world they know, the boys establish their own miniature civilization, which soon turns toward violence. Golding’s novel shows exactly why stories in remote settings fascinate us: Stripped of outside influence, kept alone together, these characters reveal themselves for the eager, cruel, conflicted creatures they—and we—really are.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
García Márquez’s flawless novel follows the rise and fall of the town of Macondo, established beside a river in Colombia. To José Arcadio Buendía, the town’s founder, Macondo seems idyllic, a pristine spot protected by water on all sides. That vision is shattered as generations of the Buendía family see their home transformed by the national railroad, new government, and foreign companies. Over the years, Macondo’s population is corrupted by forces external (an army massacre of striking workers) and internal (genetic mutations caused by incest). The novel describes a paradise lost—and convinces us that paradise never would have lasted anyway.
3. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
After an island in the Pacific and an isolated settlement in South America, this entry on the list takes us someplace stranger, more surreal. Abe’s dreamlike novel strands us in a town sunk in sand. The impossible terrain rules the story: All the people in the town pass their days shoveling back the dunes, and Abe’s main character is conscripted for the task. He has to clear the sand or he’ll be killed. Using the twin pressures of nature and community, the book pushes its characters to their haunting, unforgettable ends.
4. The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
Lin’s debut novel is set on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Containing nearly half the state’s population, Anchorage has robust infrastructure, plenty of industry, and strong ties to the rest of the world—it’s no village in the dunes—but those connections soon fray outside the city, where Alaska’s subarctic climate and wildlife rule. This book shows just how bleak life in such a distant, threatening place can be, as a family struggles to move forward after the death of a child.
5. Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen
Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, is home to fewer than 18,000 people. It’s the cultural and economic center of a country that is sparsely populated, difficult to reach, and almost entirely covered by ice. Korneliussen takes us there through this daring novel, which weaves together the lives of five young people. She cracks open our frozen imaginations to show us Greenland in all its queer, loving, heartbreaking beauty.
6. Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Lush and grotesque, this novel places us in a nameless village perched on rocks over a river. Its inhabitants cling to the perceived moral excellence of their remoteness, their bloody customs, and their oppressive conformity. They don’t wish to know anyone or anything else. Rodoreda, one of the most important figures in Catalan literature, worked on this book for 20 years, until her death. Geographically, politically, socially, the village’s cruel isolation is an expression of what Rodoreda herself faced under Franco’s dictatorship, when she was exiled from Spain.
7. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
This award-winning novel takes place in the fictional Desperance, a town in the desert bordering Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Wright digs deep into the red ground where her story is set to explore fights between local families, mining operations on sacred ground, and colonization of Aboriginal earth. Her story fixes itself in place as her characters move in and out of Dreamtime, through the past, present, and future, to show the full scope of what this land means to its inhabitants.
8. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
In this fictional history of Earth’s settlement of Mars, Bradbury’s characters attempt to transpose onto another planet all the conveniences of home. They end up bringing their diseases, weapons, and fears instead. As Bradbury puts it, “Men are men, unfortunately.” Along with the other novels on this list, The Martian Chronicles leverages a raw, remote setting to expose our common humanity. Stories set in such environments let us see what is resonant, what is fundamental, what is shared. Separated from other people and stressed by geographic extremes, characters and societies reveal their weaknesses (greed, selfishness, the violent desire for power) and cultivate new strengths (curiosity, fortitude, a drive toward genuine connection). Turns out, no matter what remote place we wind up in the Milky Way, we can’t escape ourselves. Like the authors of our favorite books, we are working within limitations—yet inside those boundaries there is so much room to explore.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Pablo García Saldaña.
Below are a handful of the many excellent books that got me through the year. As a list, it’s far from exhaustive, and not particularly systematic. But at some point I realized that it was entirely female writers in translation, and that the work of many translators I admire is included below. I’ll read a book because of a particular translator—Margaret Jull Costa, Susan Bernofsky, Natasha Wimmer, among others. I trust their work and their taste, and I let that dictate my reading.
1. Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, translated by Martha Tennent (Open Letter)The great Catalan writer’s late masterpiece, Death in Spring comes on like a hallucination. Alongside the ecstatic prose is a devastatingly precise exploration of the human impulse to cruelty and conformity.
2. Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter, translated by Rosalind Harvey (Coffee House Press)Nettel is one of my favorite writers, and I’m always interested to read what she writes. Among other things, in this novel Nettel has created one of the most sinister and wickedly exuberant male narrators since Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.
3. Yukiko Motoya, The Lonesome Bodybuilder, translated by Asa Yoneda (Soft Skull)This collection by the much-heralded Japanese writer is a thoroughgoing delight.It contains one of the most perfect short stories I’ve read in a long time, The Straw Husband.
4. Yoko Tawada, The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions)Tawada is Japanese and lives in Berlin. She writes in both German and Japanese, sometimes in the same book. It makes sense that Tawada places language at the heart of this novel, set in a future Japan that has banished all traces of English from its native language. Mitsutani handles the somewhat paradoxical task of translating into English with delicacy and intelligence.
5. Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place, translated by Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories) / Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman, translated by Jordan Stump (Archipelago)In these books, Ernaux and Mukasonga execute a simple but near impossible literary task: to capture a life on the page with absolute fidelity. Ernaux writes about her father’s life and death in rural France without a trace of sentiment or pity. Mukasonga’s tribute to her mother, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide, bears witness not only to atrocity, but also to complex matters of love and memory. Ernaux and Mukasonga are masters. I don’t think writing gets any better than this.
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