Top 10 novels about moving | C Pam Zhang

From John Steinbeck to Annie Proulx, these books capture changing places as a state of mind as much as geography

What does it mean to move in these days? Once, there were many of us accustomed to travel or wholesale uprooting, to moves driven by work or safety or love, out of need or adventure or fear or financial straits.

The mixed pleasure and longing of movement has defined my life and saturates my debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. I’m an immigrant and the child of immigrants; and I’m an adult with restlessness in my bones.

Yet as we are all halted by this pandemic, I’m coming to think of movement as a state of mind as much as one of geography. There remains a dizzying sense of movement even as we shelter in place – because the world shifts around us even as we stay still, breeding in us that familiar sense of displacement, newness, isolation, unease. Here are some books I admire that deal with movements physical and emotional.

1. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
A tone poem, a character study, an inscription of that which is uninscribable. I love this book. Lucy is a young woman fresh to New York City from Antigua – though fresh implies an innocence and simplicity of thought that this book rejects. There is such yearning in this slim novel, such inchoate desire. Lucy herself is not fully formed, and that’s half the beauty. “In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul, for I would imagine myself entering and leaving them.”

2. Good-bye Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson
A turtle wants to leave home behind, and with it his best friend. This fable-like graphic novel dwells in the twinned sweetness and agony of needing to leave a place, while also feeling the anticipatory loss of a loved one who stays behind. “My home is on my back,” the turtle says. “And yet the most real home I’ll ever have is the space where our roads merged and travelled along together. For a time.”

3. Little Gods by Meng Jin
Immigration can transform people, making them strangers to their own past lives. This novel questions whether it’s possible to ever know another person, particularly if that person is undergoing seismic shifts across generations and countries. This is a quietly enthralling study of the brilliant physicist Su Lan, whose complex and often contradictory life is puzzled over by the people who knew her.

4. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
There are books that make it their mission to shake the reader out of assumptions partway through, and Exit West is one such. What seems a typical, if well-written, contemporary realist love story takes a sharp turn once portals begin to open up, allowing people to cross into countries thousands of miles away. This book slyly undermines the ideas of borders and nationhood.

5. What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The loneliness of living in another country, with all its attendant awkwardness and desire for physical contact, drives a novel that swallows its reader whole. Though I encountered this book during a hot summer, I remember feeling physically cold, so completely was I transported to the cramped apartments and dim streets of a morally ambiguous Sofia.

the modern-day route travelled by the Joad family through Arizona in The Grapes of Wrath.
The modern-day route travelled in the 1930s through Arizona by the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of migration that is born of desperation. The travelling Joad family falls apart as its members move in search of work and stability – a mirror to the crumbling of the country in the wake of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

7. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Bumbling, “damp loaf of a man” Quoyle (what a name!) moves, after the dramatic death of his cheating wife, with two daughters into an ancestral home in icy Newfoundland. This book is a reminder that uprooting one’s life is not only for the young and starry-eyed, not only for those who think they can carve from life one shiny, perfect jewel. Maybe it can be a more timid journey, the act of finding and accepting one’s small craggy nest among the grimness.

8. Eye Level by Jenny Xie
The speaker in Xie’s poems passes through cities often known for their colourful appearances on vacation Instagrams, but there’s no airiness or leisure in Eye Level. This collection feels a keen intellectual duty to parse apart the strangeness and morality, the privilege and isolation, that come with the ability to flit around the world. World-weary intelligence mixes with nostalgia and image and ache. “Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size”

9. The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
This is a stormy, beautiful story about loss and isolation and family that resonated deeply. I don’t think I can say anything about this book more eloquent than it has to say for itself: “It was a kind of violence, what my father had done. He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.”

10. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I first read this book when I was too young to understand it. I confess I found it too subtle; I may have used the word “boring”. Ten years later and some of these stories take my breath away; I feel them vibrate through my solar plexus. There is such wisdom and mature loveliness in Lahiri’s pared-backed prose, an assurance that builds quietly to take the reader by surprise. I’ve read the closing story, The Third and Final Continent, at least a dozen times. “Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

C Pam Zhang

The GuardianTramp

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