The best novels set in the Caribbean

The Books I Picked & Why

The Feast of the Goat

By Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

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.


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The Old Man and the Sea

By Ernest Hemingway

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. 


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Conquistadora

By Esmeralda Santiago

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.


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The Comedians

By Graham Greene

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.


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No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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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