The best books about English women and men in Eastern Europe (ignoring spies for once)

Why am I passionate about this?

I moved to Britain from Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia, in 1986. Still in my early twenties, I was a published poet in Serbian, but I didn’t dream I would eventually become a novelist in English. I devoured any English book that dealt with East-West encounters. I must have read several hundred as I researched my first book, Inventing Ruritania, a cultural study of the “Wild East”. I returned to them when I wrote Iron Curtain, a novel about a “Red Princess” from an unnamed East European country who marries an impecunious English poet. I sometimes thought of it as Ruritania writes back.


I wrote...

Iron Curtain: A Love Story

By Vesna Goldsworthy,

Book cover of Iron Curtain: A Love Story

What is my book about?

Iron Curtain uses the bitter-sweet story of a doomed love affair between Milena, a Soviet-era Red Princess, and Jason, a self-declared Irish Marxist poet, to probe fissures in Europe that continue to affect us all.

It echoes the myth of Medea in its gripping tale of Western betrayal and Eastern revenge. It is a spellbinding novel: original, tense, and often hilarious in its extraordinary evocation of two wildly contrasted worlds. It brings to mind the best political fiction from Eastern Europe, such as the works of Pasternak and Kundera, but now in an inimitable British-Serbian woman’s voice. With the fading of the optimism which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the fractured world described in this novel has a renewed and ominous resonance. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

Vesna Goldsworthy Why did I love this book?

This book about Yugoslavia is my favourite work of travel writing, all the more remarkable for being written during the Blitz, amid the sound of bombs raining over London.

It is half-a-million words long and it deals with a country that doesn’t exist anymore – but don’t let that put you off. Historians and critics have called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon the greatest travel book of the twentieth century and I agree.

Rebecca West discovered Yugoslavia on the eve of the Second World War because – in the growing certainty of the apocalypse which was facing Europe – she wanted to write about a small country and its relationship with great empires.

Yugoslavia seemed at first an almost accidental choice but it changed her life. 

By Rebecca West,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Impossible to put down' Observer
'One of the great books of the century' Times Literary Supplement

Rebecca West's epic masterpiece not only provides deep insight into the former country of Yugoslavia; it is a portrait of Europe on the brink of war. A heady cocktail of personal travelogue and historical insight, this product of an implacably inquisitive intelligence remains essential for anyone attempting to understand the history of the Balkan states, and the wider ongoing implications for a fractured Europe.


Book cover of The Balkan Trilogy

Vesna Goldsworthy Why did I love this book?

Having not one but three books as my second choice may look like cheating, but the novels which comprise Manning’s unforgettable Balkan TrilogyThe Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, set in Bucharest, Romania; and Friends and Heroes, set in Athens – are now usually published under one cover.

The first two volumes paint the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle, newly married English expats in the Romanian capital on the eve of the Second World War, who then escape to Athens as the Germans advance across the Balkans.

I use the verb “paint” deliberately. Manning was a painter in her youth, and few writers can paint the word-picture of a foreigner in a strange city as well as she does.

I fell in love with Bucharest after reading it, and I travelled there for the first time in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution in 1989, while there was still shooting in the streets. Few books can make an introduction like that!

By Olivia Manning,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Balkan Trilogy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Her gallery of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilised' Anthony Burgess

'So glittering is the overall parade - and so entertaining the surface - that the trilogy remains excitingly vivid; it amuses, it diverts and it informs, and to do these things so elegantly is no small achievement' Sunday Times

'A fantastically tart and readable account of life in eastern Europe at the start of the war' Sarah Waters

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming, and complex masterpiece in which Olivia…


Book cover of Rates of Exchange

Vesna Goldsworthy Why did I love this book?

I can think of few novels as funny as this one.

Rates of Exchange depicts a hapless British academic, Angus Petworth, on his first journey behind Iron Curtain and into the imaginary land of Slaka, a country that combines elements of a number of East European communist states but is perhaps most like a combination of Romania and Bulgaria, with a touch of former Yugoslavia.

The riotous Cold War comedy begins as Petworth boards the flight (“Welcome here please on Comflug 155, destiny Slaka”) and it continues to the last line, as Petworth is feted, followed, seduced, and left thoroughly confused.

It is as funny about the British as it is about the East Europeans, and his language games are infectious. I end up speaking “Slakan” English every time I reread the novel.

By Malcolm Bradbury,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rates of Exchange as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Slaka! Land of lake and forest, of beetroot and tractor. Slaka! Land whose borders are sometimes here, often further north, and sometimes not at all!

Dr Petworth is on a cultural exchange to the small (and fictional) Eastern European country of Slaka. Pallid and middle-aged, Dr Petworth might appear stuffy, but during his short stay he manages to embroil himself in the thorny thickets of sexual intrigue and love, while still finding time to see the major sites.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1983, Rates of Exchange took Bradbury's satirical gifts to a new level.


Book cover of The Last Hundred Days

Vesna Goldsworthy Why did I love this book?

This is another story of a hapless, now unnamed, English academic in Eastern Europe, yet McGuinness’s Romanian novel couldn’t be more different from Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange, and not only for being tied to a very specific moment and place: Bucharest in the final months of 1989.

It captures the darkness and the deprivations of Ceaușescu’s regime just before its fall. It is a Cold War novel written by a poet and this shows in the richness of its melancholy and sinister atmosphere.

By Patrick McGuinness,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Hundred Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Once the gleaming "Paris of the East," Bucharest in 1989 is a world of corruption and paranoia, in thrall to the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Old landmarks are falling to demolition crews, grocery shelves are empty, and informants are everywhere. Into this state of crisis, a young British man arrives to take a university post he never interviewed for. He is taken under the wing of Leo O'Heix, a colleague and master of the black market, and falls for the sleek Celia, daughter of a party apparatchik. Yet he soon learns that in this society, friendships are compromised, and…


Book cover of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Vesna Goldsworthy Why did I love this book?

“Mad, bad and dangerous to know”, Lord Byron is such an enduring literary superstar that he hardly needs a recommendation, but today people talk about his many lovers, or his death in Greece where he went to fight against the Ottoman empire, much more than they read his work.

It may be that an idea of an old, long narrative poem sounds off-putting; Childe Harold is anything but. An early example of “autobiografiction”, this tale of a young and world-weary aristocrat on a long trip around European peripheries is based on Byron’s own experiences.

In terms of Harold’s jaded attitude, it could almost be a contemporary gap year trip, with a huge historic difference.

I love it for its early descriptions of the European East, and I encourage you to observe the attitude of superiority which would be emulated by so many Victorian and later authors, without Byron’s panache, and often as armchair travellers.

By George Gordon Byron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Childe Harold's Pilgrimage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…


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I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

Fran Hawthorne Author Of I Meant to Tell You

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Museum guide Foreign language student Runner Community activist Former health-care journalist

Fran's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not a criminal, she stumbles into other secrets that will challenge what she thought she knew about her own family, her friend, Russ—and herself.

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

What is this book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not…


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