Seems like travelling this summer is going to have to happen mostly in your head, so to help we’ve collected a list of books that will transport you to your favourite holiday destinations. Our first stop is Greece…Italy, Spain and France to follow!
The Magus by John Fowles. Very few novels have grabbed hold of me in the way the The Magus did when I first read it many years ago. Oxford graduate Nicholas Urfe takes up a job teaching English at the Greek Island of Phraxos. Bored and lonely, he starts wandering the arid, pine-clad island and stumbles upon mysterious, wealthy, recluse Maurice Conchis. Soon Nicholas is entangled in Conchis’ psychological games and unable to determined what’s real and what’s imagination, and so is the reader. By the end of this novel you’ll be as confused as ever, and that’s part of the point. An unputdownable, hypnotic mind f•••!
A Theatre For Dreamers by Polly Samson – Just out, Samson’s story of Leonard Cohen’s relationship with Marianne Ihlen, immortalised in Cohen’s song So Long Marianne, will take you right to the picture perfect island of Hydra. Her portrayal of the bohemian circle of painters, musicians and poets in which Cohen and Ihlen met and their tangled love lives should be perfect escapism.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis Bernieres – Remember this one? A huge best-seller in 1994. A Second World War love story and tear jerker set on the island of Kefalonia during the Italian and German occupation, just as Italy changes sides to support the Allied forces. Wounded Italian soldier Antonio Corelli is hidden at Pelagia’s house as the Germans search the island for Italian soldiers. And guess what? They fall in love.
Circe by Madeline Miller – If you cast your mind back to school you may remember Circe as the witch on whose island Odysseus and his crew washed up on their long journey back from the Trojan War, and wasn’t there something about turning men to pigs and, um, did Odysseus have an affair with her? If you have ever wondered why she lived alone on that island, what made her a sorceress, what happened to her after Odysseus left her to go back to his wife – indeed if you have ever wondered about the reality behind the headline story of any woman who plays a bit part in the (hi)story of men – you have an absolute treat in store with this book.
The Song og Achilles by Madeline Miller – Miller, a scholar of Latin and Ancient Greek, immerses the reader in ancient Greece as she boldly retells The Iliad’s famous legend of Achilles from the point of view of Patroclus, an awkward, lonely young prince. Shamed and then exiled by his father to the court of King Peleus and his golden boy demi-god son Achilles, Patroclus and Achilles quickly become close friends and grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine. In my view, Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles, first published in 2012 and the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction that year, is even better than the already amazing Circe.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – Another stunning book based on Greek myths and the Trojan War. The story starts with the terrifying last moments before Lyrnessus, our heroine Briseis’ home city, falls to the Greeks. The women and children have sought refuge on the top floor of the citadel. As the sounds of clashing swords and screams approach, the women prepare themselves for the inevitable, death or sexual enslavement. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a recount of Homer’s testosterone fuelled Greek epic poem The Iliad. This time, from the perspective of the other half, the long suffering women. An absolutely riveting read.
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon – Two pages into The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night Time) I was utterly hooked and only emerged bleary-eyed a day later after what felt like a roller-coaster ride. The book interweaves a contemporary story with Pericles, Prince of Tyres, one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays (itself based on the ancient myth of Appolinus of Tyre). The Porpoise is first class, breakneck paced storytelling. A sort of literary Mission Impossible.
The Odyssey by Homer translated by Emily Wilson – If you’re feeling ambitious, go back to this Greek epic poem, the source for many of the books above and read the original in a new critically acclaimed translation by Emily Wilson. The mother of all Western literature.
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple – a legendary book of travel writing from 1994 based on a journey from Mount Athos in Greece through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, ending up in Egypt. Dalrymple followed in the footsteps of two monks who, in the sixth century, sat off on a walk across the entire Byzantine empire. An entertaining lesson in history, politics and spirituality.