John Boyne is the author of 13 novels for adults and six novels for younger readers and a short story collection including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. In his latest novel The Echo Chamber, Boyne explores the negative effect of social media. He shares his favourite transportive fiction which takes him from Amalfi to Australia …
If you’ve longed to visit Italy’s Amalfi coast, but been prevented from travelling by that pesky pandemic, you can experience it through fiction in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). One of my favourite novels, and the first of a series of books that feature the eponymous anti-hero, the coastline proves as intoxicating to the reader as it does to the social climbing Tom Ripley, who travels across the Atlantic in an ill-conceived attempt to return the sybarite Dickie Greenleaf to his family in New York. Highsmith, who is generally more at home with murderous plots and sexually ambiguous characters, introduces the readers to the delights of the winding streets, the colourful Vespas, the gelati, the nightclubs, and the sun-blistered beaches of Mongibello, an invented town generally considered to be based on Positano, where Anthony Minghella’s classic film adaptation was shot.
I’m a dedicated Australophile and have travelled to the Antipodes thirteen times over the last fifteen years. To my mind, no novel better represents Melbourne than Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (2008). It has a great premise – at a suburban barbecue, a man slaps a child that isn’t his own – but outside of the family dramas and broken friendships that ensue, it brilliantly explores the Greek immigrant community in Victoria’s capital, putting the racial, social, and financial differences that divide the white residents from those whose families have arrived in the continent during the 20th century, on display. Melbourne, a city I love, is portrayed in all its complicated glory, from the wealthy suburbs where Harry and Sandi live, to the run-down ‘bogan’ lifestyle of Rosie and Gary. It’s not Neighbours, that’s for sure.
We’ve probably all read books and seen movies depicting Paris as the elegant and luxurious City of Light, but for a more nuanced study of the French capital, I would recommend Nicolas Mathieu’s And Their Children After Them (2020). This is not the type of novel where beautiful, wealthy people swan up and down the Champs-Élysées, weighed down by Chanel handbags and hiding behind Pierre Cardin sunglasses; instead, it draws the reader towards the suburbs – les banlieues – where young people are starved of positive role models and unable to get jobs in an economy that has no room for them. They spend their time racing motorbikes, drinking, having sex, sleeping, just getting through each day. It’s a desperate existence but the novel is not soaked in misery for it happens to be set in the weeks leading up to France’s triumph in the 1998 World Cup and, for once, the city is brought together, rich, and poor, Parisian and immigrant, in a moment of triumph.
I’ve been to India three times and long to return for it grows more fascinating to me with each trip. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) is a stunning introduction to both Delhi and Bangalore. Balram, an impoverished village boy, becomes a chauffeur to a wealthy family and, while it seems that he has struck gold by winning this prestigious position, it’s only the beginning of a series of dramas that eventually lead him to extraordinary wealth. Adiga, born in Madras, captures the sensual aspects of Delhi brilliantly, the noise, the people, the sights and smells, those things that can overwhelm a Western visitor on his or her first visit, but which slowly become hypnotic. This is a real “rags to riches” story, deeply ingrained in the class system of India, with humour balanced alongside the tension. Last year, it was made into a Netflix film, directed by Rahim Bahrani, and it’s a wonderful adaptation with a spirited central performance by the young actor Adarsh Gourav.
The Echo Chamber by John Boyne, Doubleday, €13.99 is out now.
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