Expand your literary horizons with novels set in Oman, Chile, Japan, Poland, China and more.
It’s tempting, when buying books, to stick to authors you know you love. It’s like choosing what to watch at the cinema: you’re probably more likely to plump for a movie helmed by one of your favourite directors than to take a chance on an obscure film you’ve never heard of.
But while staying in your cultural comfort zone is understandable, it’s always worth branching out. Reading books by authors from countries that aren’t your own, in particular, is a wonderful way of widening your horizons and giving you a new perspective on the world. Whether we realise it or not, we’re all influenced by the Western literary canon, the selection of books widely deemed ‘great’ or ‘classic’ fiction by academics, educators and publishers – think Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby and 1984. And the problem with the canon is that it has long prioritised books by white authors – particularly male authors – from the UK and US.
Astonishing work by writers from other countries, in contrast, tends to be sidelined. This isn’t just hyperbole: while sales of translated fiction in the UK grew by 5.5% in 2018, new and classic translated works still account for less than 6% of all the novels sold in this country. The translated fiction that does get sold in the UK still tends to be overwhelmingly European in origin – meaning that we’re missing out on an entire world of books by authors from countries in Asia, South America and Africa.
If you’d like to read more books by authors from outside the UK and US, you could do worse than starting with this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist. The prestigious literary award recognises novels that have been translated into English from another language, and is open to authors from any country in the world (the Booker Prize, on the other hand, can only be won by novels originally written in English).
This year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist is dominated by female authors and translators: out of the 13 nominated novels, eight have been written and translated by women. And while not all continents are represented – there is a conspicuous lack of books by African authors on the list – it still makes for a solid introduction to 21st century literature from around the world.
Below, we break down what each novel is about. Prepare to add several new titles to your reading list…
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, Celestial Bodies tells the story of three sisters and their differing reasons for getting married – or not. Mayya married her husband after having her heart broken; Asma married out of a sense of duty; and Khawla refuses to marry anyone after the man she loves emigrates to Canada. While it is tightly focused on one family, the novel also provides a rich picture of how Oman is changing in the 21st century.
£8.99, Sandstone Press
Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
Experimental author Deng Xiaohua, who often writes under the pen name Can Xue, is widely considered to be one of China’s most significant contemporary authors. In this dark, dystopian but very funny novel, a group of women live under constant surveillance, battling paranoia and occasionally trying to flee.
It’s not what you’d call tightly plotted, but that’s not the point. Instead, Xue explores different kinds of love and sex against a vivid, fantastical backdrop that’s a mishmash of East and West.
£18.97 ($25), Yale University Press
The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison Strayer
A bona fide literary superstar in France, Annie Ernaux is still relatively little-known on these shores. Her lyrical, unconventional memoir The Years was originally published in France in 2008, but was only released in the UK in 2018 following its translation by Alison Strayer.
The book spans Ernaux’s life from her birth in 1940 up until 2006, using memories, photographs, songs, diary entries, advertising and newspaper headlines (among other things). The result is a patchwork portrait of an entire generation, as well as the intimate story of one woman.
£12.99, Fitzcarraldo Editions
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated from German by Jen Calleja
What would do you if you dreamed your partner had cheated on you? For Gilbert Silvester, the protagonist of The Pine Islands, there’s only one answer to that question: you run away to Japan (obviously).
In Tokyo, Gilbert is yanked out of his mid-life crisis when he discovers the travel writings of the Japanese poet Basho, which inspire him to set out on a pilgrimage to the islands of Matsushima. Strikingly soothing and very funny, The Pine Islands is an international bestseller and won the Berlin Prize for Literature in 2017.
£12.99, Serpent’s Tail (out 11 April)
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell
This is the second time Argentine Spanish author Samanta Schweblin has been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize: her first novel Fever Dream appeared on the longlist in 2017.
Her most recent short story collection Mouthful of Birds features women and men in various states of emotional and psychological tension. New brides scream with rage; children transform; families try to resist falling apart. Melancholy, hypnotic and dreamlike.
The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
The writer and radical feminist Valerie Solanas was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room in April 1988, two decades after she achieved international notoriety by trying to assassinate Andy Warhol. In The Faculty of Dreams, Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg visits Solanas’ childhood home in Georgia, the courtroom where she was tried and convicted, the psychiatric hospital where she was interred and the room where she died.
But this isn’t a factual work: instead, Stridsberg weaves together imagined conversations and monologues to create a fictionalised impression of Solanas, a woman who seemed unknowable to so many.
£13.99, MacLehose Press (out 18 April)
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Polish author, activist and intellectual Olga Tokarczuk is a prominent figure in her native Poland, where she has been criticised by nationalists and right-wing groups for her outspoken feminist views and criticisms of xenophobia and racism. Her 2007 novel Flights won the International Man Booker just last year after being translated into English – and now it’s the turn of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
A darkly feminist murder mystery, it follows retired schoolteacher Janina Duszejko as she tries to uncover why men are being murdered in a tiny Polish village.
£12.99, Fitzcarraldo Editions
The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes
The Remainder, the debut novel by 35-year-old Chilean author Alia Trabucco Zerán, received critical acclaim in South America when it was published in Spanish in 2015.
Exploring the legacy of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled Chile until 1990, it follows three children of ex-militants as they attempt to come to terms with their parents’ past – and make sense of the trauma they’ve experienced themselves. A sensitive and moving exploration of how the effects of violence can ripple through generations.
£10, And Other Stories
Images: Courtesy of publishers