The best contemporary novels about searching abroad

The Books I Picked & Why

Austerlitz

By W. G. Sebald

Austerlitz

Why this book?

In many ways unprecedented, the work of W.G. Sebald not only reimagined what literature was capable of but also went on to influence an entire generation of writers, including several others on this list. In this novel, Sebald’s last, the title character details his search for facts surrounding the circumstances of his youth, when he was shipped from Germany to Britain before the onset of World War II. Meditative and haunting, the writing itself is a form of search, blending fact with fiction to create something utterly compelling.


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Open City

By Teju Cole

Open City

Why this book?

This is literally a book about walking around a foreign city (New York), going “farther and farther afield each time,” and viewing things through an outsider’s eyes. Beneath the surface, however, it is something much more: the need (and failure) to confront unaddressed trauma, whether that be personal or communal. Quite fittingly, post-9/11 Manhattan serves as the backdrop for much of the story, as Julius, the protagonist, muses on various topics ranging from social theory to art and literature. In the end, it’s up to readers to dig beneath this guise of intellectualism to find out what’s really there.


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What Belongs to You

By Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You

Why this book?

Many stories set abroad focus heavily on themes of identity, which makes sense, as characters who choose to leave home seldom feel a strong connection to where they’re from, and life in an unfamiliar environment allows for a clearer, less distracted examination of the self. This debut is no exception, poignantly mining the conflict of shame and desire at the heart of a gay American teaching in Bulgaria, where homosexuality has yet to gain acceptance, mirroring the unresolved rejections of his childhood.


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Leaving the Atocha Station

By Ben Lerner

Leaving the Atocha Station

Why this book?

There’s being lost in life, then there’s drunkenly lying about your mother’s death in order to elicit sympathy from a potential love interest. Having bluffed his way into a fellowship in Spain, Adam Gordon, the highly privileged, highly incompetent narrator of this book, spends most of his days getting high and wrestling with the connection between experience and art, questioning his own legitimacy at every turn. Not a lot happens, but that’s kind of the point: the absence of adversity in Gordon’s life is what makes him so insecure and is perhaps saying something on the topic of American decline.


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Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Why this book?

For better or worse, living in a foreign country often forces a reassessment of the way the world works, both at home and abroad. Race and authenticity are at the center of this novel, wrapped around a love story, exposing the hollowness of certain assumptions while taking a more critical view of Western and African society. Despite this, Adichie’s writing never comes off as sneering or condescending, like the Americanah of the title: self-important Nigerians returning home from overseas.


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