Culture Global Literature

Put yourself on the page

Step back from the pages of some of your favourite literary classics and explore the settings that inspired them for yourself.

A good book can transport you to distant lands – and travel can bring the best stories to life. Explore five places around the world where location is the most compelling character.

JD Salinger’s New York City

Holden Caufield’s postwar New York may live in the past, but the underbelly of Greenwich Village lives on © Krisztina Papp, Unsplash

Countless books have used the Big Apple as a backdrop – memorably, Edith Wharton’s fin-de-siècle masterpieces, the Broadway of Damon Runyan’s streetlife stories, even American Psycho. But perhaps more than any other, The Catcher in the Rye encapsulates the postwar city in all its grime and grandeur. Ennui-ridden, selfconsciously cynical teenager Holden Caulfield roams jazz clubs and skate rinks, Central Park and seedy hotels, Grand Central station and Greenwich Village. Using Salinger’s slender tome as a guidebook is a great way to plan a break in the city than never sleeps.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Scotland

Abandoned boats on the Isle of Mull © Frederico Gauz, Unsplash

The glens, castles, islands and lochs of Scotland provided ideal settings for great tales of adventure, both historical and literary – however accurate (or not) the events depicted in movies such as Braveheart or, more recently, Mary Queen of Scots. The Jacobite risings of the 18th century provided inspiration for authors including Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Kidnapped uses the 1745 rebellion as the backdrop for a story of a stolen inheritance, Jacobite agents and – yes – kidnap that take young hero David Balfour from Cramond, on the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, to shipwreck off the Hebrides, a journey across the dramatic landscapes of Mull through Appin and over the Highlands near Loch Lomond to Balquhidder (site of Rob Roy’s grave). 

Graham Greene’s Havana

The Floridita, site of best daiquiris you can get © Eye, Unsplash

The English novelist visited Cuba’s capital in the 1950s, and his black comedy Our Man in Havana was published just a few months before the revolution toppled the repressive Batista regime and brought Fidel Castro to power. But though the island is very different after 60 years of communist rule, the crumbling colonial magnificence of Havana still exudes a powerful charm – and retains plenty of key locations from Greene’s novel. Sip a daiquiri in the Floridita (Ernest Hemingway’s favoured haunt) or prop up the bar at Sloppy Joe’s; stroll the seafront Malecón promenade; peer into the Art Deco Hotel Nacional; catch a kitschy, colourful show at Cabaret Tropicana; or simply amble the streets of the old city, lined with sometimes restored but mostly decaying colonial-era mansions.

Arundhati Roy’s Kerala

Backwaters in Alleppey, Kerala, India © Kunal Kalra, Unsplash

India is home to more than 1.3 billion people, and almost as many stories. Ancient legends tell of battles between many-limbed gods and demons, while more modern narratives explore the bazaars of Lahore (Kipling’s Kim), the slums of Calcutta (City of Joy) and Mumbai (Q&A, from which hit movie Slumdog Millionaire was adapted), and the magical realist India of Salman Rushdie. But for a book that simple drips with a sense of place, delve into The God of Small Things. This moving novel is set amid the villages, ricefields and waterways of the southern state of Kerala, a place of sensory wonders – catch a boat through the backwaters and absorb the scents of cardamom and frying vadas, the sounds of laughing children and splashing paddles, and the feel of monsoon raindrops cooling your face.

Isabel Allende’s Chile

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile © Falk2, Wikimedia Commons

Like Gabriel García Márquez, who created a fictional land based on real places in his home country of Colombia, in The House of the Spirits Isabel Allende – a close relative of former Chilean president Salvador Allende, ousted in the 1973 military coup that brought the repressive Pinochet junta to power – conjures up a country that is Chile but not Chile. Though you won’t find place names from her novel on a map, visit Santiago and roam the surrounding countryside, and you’ll certainly feel the spirit of her world. You’ll hear echoes in the capital’s central Plaza de Armas, with its striking neoclassical cathedral; at La Chascona, former home of poet Pablo Neruda; and simply by strolling the Brasil and Yungay barrios (districts), home to the grand 19th-century mansions of the wealthy.