The best novels set in the Caribbean

Who am I?

Ever since traveling across Cuba as a teenager in 2006, I’ve been fascinated by the Caribbean and Latin America. That trip inspired me to learn Spanish, study abroad in Mexico, and write a college honors thesis at Harvard about the Batista and Trujillo regimes in Cuba and the Dominican Republic respectively. Upon graduation, I merged this interest with my desire to serve my country by joining the Coast Guard – the military branch most involved in the Western Hemisphere. This proved to be a wise decision, as the two years I spent stationed in Puerto Rico and patrolling the Caribbean were two of the most enjoyable years of my life.


I wrote...

Mona Passage

By Thomas Bardenwerper,

Book cover of Mona Passage

What is my book about?

In 1991, young Galán Betances escapes Cuba, leaving behind his mother and developmentally challenged sister, Gabriela. In 2012, Pat McAllister joins the Coast Guard, determined to live up to the example set by his older brother, Danny, who was injured in Iraq.

When Galán and Pat meet as neighbors in San Juan, Puerto Rico, they build a friendship based on their shared status as outsiders and their common desire to heal. With Gabriela at risk of being committed to a mental health facility in Cuba, Galán arranges to have her smuggled to Puerto Rico via the treacherous Mona Passage. Pat, whose Coast Guard cutter patrols these waters for cocaine traffickers and migrants, must decide if he is willing to risk everything to unite a family.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Feast of the Goat

By Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman (translator),

Book cover of The Feast of the Goat

Why this book?

Set in the Dominican Republic, The Feast of the Goat explores the 1961 assassination of the monstrous dictator Rafael Trujillo from the perspectives of Trujillo himself, the assassins, and a Dominican emigrant who has returned to her native land decades later. Vargas Llosa recreates the suffocating atmosphere that pervaded the country in a way that no historian ever could. I had heard that the terrible legacy of Trujillo can still be felt today in the Dominican Republic, but I didn’t fully appreciate this until visiting Santo Domingo in 2017.


The Old Man and the Sea

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of The Old Man and the Sea

Why this book?

This famous short story of Santiago, Manolin, and the marlin requires several readings. From the Cuban seaside village where Santiago and Manolin tend their gear and talk baseball to the cerulean blue waters of the Florida Straits where Santiago struggles with the marlin, so much is happening beneath the surface of Hemingway’s sentences. Having sailed these same waters with the Coast Guard, I have seen their majestic beauty and can understand why Hemingway choose them as the setting for arguably his greatest work. 


Conquistadora

By Esmeralda Santiago,

Book cover of Conquistadora

Why this book?

Esmeralda Santiago portrays the 19th-century journey of Ana Cubillas from imperial Spain to colonial outpost Puerto Rico. Cubillas has a complicated relationship with her family, slavery, and Puerto Rico, and the reader never knows quite what to think of her. Like Cubillas, Puerto Rico itself is complicated. I lived in San Juan for two years and grew to love the island, but I never felt like I quite understood it – any outsider who says they do is probably lying.


The Comedians

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of The Comedians

Why this book?

Three American men meet aboard a ship destined for 1950s Port-Au-Prince. These men, each of whom is a small-time big shot with inconsistent backgrounds, arrive in Haiti as “Papa Doc” Duvalier consolidates power. Much of this timeless story takes place in and around a darkly mysterious hotel that caters to an ebbing flow of foreigners. I say “timeless” because over half a century has passed since Greene wrote The Comedians, and the country of Haiti remains a mystery to that small subset of Americans that has deigned pay attention to it.


No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez,

Book cover of No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories

Why this book?

Set in a fictional town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast during the 1950’s “violencia,” this novella portrays the seemingly mundane life of an anonymous retired military officer and his wife. The aging couple struggles against poverty, government corruption, and an overwhelming feeling of insignificance. As the colonel’s life loses meaning, he eventually realizes that he has nothing left but the rooster that he is readying for a cockfight. I read this novella after training with the Colombian Navy in Cartagena, and it took me only a few pages to realize that García Márquez is a genius.


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