The best novels to immerse you in another time and another place

David Wharton Author Of Finer Things
By David Wharton

Who am I?

As a novelist, I get a lot of praise for my immersive recreation of time and place – even though I have complete aphantasia. That’s a condition affecting about 0.8% of the population, and it means I can’t form visual mental images. Ask me to close my eyes and visualise an apple, and I will see… darkness. Nothing. I suppose it’s why I’ve always loved novelists who create a picture with words. But truly great descriptive writing is about so much more than just what you can ‘see.’ These writers give you the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of their worlds too. And they’re all wonderful storytellers.

I wrote...

Finer Things

By David Wharton,

Book cover of Finer Things

What is my book about?

"Bursting with the unexpected… art school bohemia meets the gangster underworld." - Catherine Simpson.

It’s 1963 and the sixties haven’t quite started to swing. Delia’s a professional shoplifter from the East End, desperate to disentangle herself from her dangerous lifestyle. Yorkshire girl Tess is disappointed and isolated at her elite London art school. Her only friend, Jimmy is a gifted painter, but his world is full of complications. A chance meeting of these three outsiders at a seedy Soho club sets them all off in unexpected directions – possibly to disaster, possibly to redemption.

The books I picked & why

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The Dutch House

By Ann Patchett,

Book cover of The Dutch House

Why this book?

I’ve described this elsewhere as the sort of novel that makes other writers want to give up the job. It’s a beautifully crafted reconstruction of mid-to-late 20th century New York, as seen through the eyes of flawed, selfish Danny, perpetually in awe of his magnificent sister Maeve. The real ‘other time, other place’ here though, is the Dutch House of the title: a home, a history, and a battleground over which family rivalries are fought out for five decades. 

The Line of Beauty

By Alan Hollinghurst,

Book cover of The Line of Beauty

Why this book?

The first time I read this masterpiece, I was blown away by Hollinghurst’s marvellous prose, by the vicious political satire, and by the vividness of his recreation of gay life in 1980s London as the AIDS crisis hit. All that was so distractingly brilliant that it took me a second reading to see the book’s emotional power. Most of the characters have barely any redeeming features and yet Hollinghurst still makes their lives tragic and affecting. It’s a stunning achievement.  

The Crimson Petal and the White

By Michel Faber,

Book cover of The Crimson Petal and the White

Why this book?

I’ve just finished writing a novel set in Victorian England and Michel Faber’s novel has been a touchstone for me. I’ll be delighted if I can get anywhere near this book’s characterful visualisation of the era, its playful connections with our own time, and the absolute reality of Sugar, Faber’s terrific protagonist.

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson,

Book cover of Life After Life

Why this book?

This is such a clever book. The central premise, of a character who keeps dying and having to start her life again from scratch, is ingenious, but it wouldn’t work if Atkinson weren’t so marvellous at creating the atmosphere of early-mid 20th Century England. I was especially taken by her accounts of the Blitz – they were in my mind when I described the still-unrebuilt bomb sites of 1960s London in my own first novel.

Oscar and Lucinda

By Peter Carey,

Book cover of Oscar and Lucinda

Why this book?

This is another modern venture into Victoriana, with a love affair straight out of Thomas Hardy, ruined by mutual misunderstanding. Its characters are heartbreakingly real and utterly original, and it closes with one of the most memorable set-piece scenes I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil the surprise because it occurs about 400 pages into this long, seductive novel, but it’s a stunningly sensory and dramatic moment.

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