Thursday, 21 June 2018

Six of the Best: Books set in European Cities

By JJ Marsh
That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Dubrovnik, Croatia

For someone like me, born in Wales who spent formative years in Africa and Asia, continental Europe has a attraction like nowhere else. There lies history, romance, culture and stories. It has a wealth of geographical attractions such as Portuguese beaches, Swiss mountains, Italian lakes and French vineyards. But my passion is for the cities.
Amsterdam in January: discarded Christmas trees beside canals; bikes, bridges and gables.
Madrid at Easter: dramatic daytime parades, roasted garlic and parties that start at midnight.
Porto at São João: everyone out with squeaky hammers, eating sardines and watching fireworks.
Stuttgart in the autumn: beer in open squares at communal tables, with new friends and brass bands.
Pardubice in winter: frozen lakes, steaming saunas, freezing attics and extremely strong cheese.
Naples in July: ripe tomatoes, brown skin, tiny trucks and the sensory overload of the harbour.
Each has an atmosphere all its own and I never tire of exploring their present - in person - and past through literature.

I’ve chosen six books to transport you to another time and place while relaxing into the story. If you have any novel ways of exploring a city, I’d love to know.

Delft 1660s: Girl with a Pearl Earring – Tracy Chevalier

As delicate as a work of art, the book explores the complex relationships of the Vermeer household. The artist who has come to represent the Dutch Golden Age completed only two to three paintings a year, putting the household economy under pressure.
When Griet, the new maid, seems to inspire the master, tensions build between his wife, his mother-in-law and the observant Griet. Delft’s canals, markets and Calvinist culture all spring to life on the page, creating a beautiful background to what might have been.

Paris 1785: Pure – Andrew Miller

Jean-Baptiste Baratte is summoned from the quiet town of Bellême to Paris, to complete a rather unusual task. He is to clear the cemetery of Les Innocents. Miller describes the city of Paris, the cemetery and its long-dead inhabitants, the local people and his own arc of change with such graceful sensory evocation, I was reminded of Suskind’s Perfume.
The characters are fascinating, all portrayed through Baratte’s perceptions and prejudices. But it’s the setting that makes you feel you’ve been in another world, another time, another place and experienced it so vividly that you put it down feeling a little disorientated to find yourself on the bus.

Barcelona 1945: The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is where ten-year-old Daniel encounters The Shadow of the Wind. He is charged with protecting that copy as the only one in existence. The book enthralls him and he wants to find out more about the author.
But Julián Carax is dead and Daniel’s commitment to the book is attracting enemies. Not least a mysterious man seeking out all Carax’s work with the aim of total eradication. Barcelona through the eyes of a child in a country under a different kind of shadow.

Naples 1950s: My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

On the surface, this is a coming-of-age novel set in a poor, violent suburb of Naples. Yet it has depths of love, beauty, politics, social observation, spite, generosity and anger all rendered in sparkling prose.
The reader is immersed in this Southern Italian environment, narrated by Elena Greco, whose entire story of her growth and development into her late teens is refracted through the lens of comparison. Ferrante’s cast of characters is broad and its hierarchy rigid. Brutal threats between neighbours, families, lovers are rarely idle and an undercurrent of honour, vengeance and blood runs just below the surface.
Passions and dramas abound on the small stage of their little community, set against a greater backdrop of the recent war, political extremism and the importance of having the right connections.

Lisbon 1960s/1970s/now: Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

A chance meeting with a Portuguese woman on a bridge in Bern provokes Gregorius, a Swiss teacher of Classics, to follow his curiosity. It leads him to a book, ‘Um Ourives das Palavras’ (A Goldsmith of Words), written by Amadeu de Prado.
In an uncharacteristic act of spontaneity, Gregorius walks away from his life and boards a night train to Lisbon, just to discover more about the author. He discovers the city as a stranger and the language through sheer determination, constantly learning the harsh truths about the recent dictatorship and effects on its people.

Moscow early 2000s: Snowdrops – AD Miller

The eponymous snowdrop refers to a body buried under the winter snow which only comes to light in the thaw. The image is relevant both literally and metaphorically to AD Miller’s Moscow tale of corruption and moral erosion.
The book is ostensibly a letter from Nick to his fiancée, cleaning the slate by confessing his past. He was working as a lawyer in Moscow, where he met Masha and Katya, and so began his decay. The author uses the setting of wintry Moscow, and the period just before the credit crunch, to great reflective effect. Nick’s moral choices are underpinned by a sense of ‘Right here, right now, this is just how it works’. But one day, the snow will melt …


JJ Marsh is the author of The Beatrice Stubbs Series. Each book is more than a heart-racing crime novel; it's a European adventure. From the snow-capped peaks of Switzerland to a deserted Welsh beach or golden vineyards in the Basque country of Spain; each story is immersed in the landscape, culture, cuisine, architecture and personality of its location.