A little arrogantly, I am always surprised when someone recommends a book to me, and it turns out it is famous, but I have never heard of it. Such was the case with the Yacoubian Building, which I am currently reading. The novel is set in a building in 90’s Egypt and follows the sometimes interwoven stories of the various inhabitants. I was hooked from the start. As, it turns out were literally millions of others. The book was the best-selling Arabic novel of 2002 and 2003, has been made into a TV show and a film and translated into 23 languages (thanks Wikipedia).
My friend recommended me this novel, based on my recommendation to her: The Book of Unknown Americans – a new novel about Latin immigrants who all live in a building in Delware. Again, the novel tells the semi-interwoven stories of the families that live in the building. Again, I was hooked from the start, fascinated by the characters, their histories, the challenges they face and the choices they are forced to make in this new country.
This got me thinking that I think I have a certain penchant for books set in one building. Among my favourites are The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (set over 70 years, in a house in Czechoslovakia) and The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Lloyd (set in an apartment block in New York). Although, I must admit, this love isn’t universal. I could never get into The Elegance of the Hedgehog, although I know others loved it.
I think I like these “one building” novels like others become obsessed with books about journeys, or novels set in a certain country. They just play to something within me. On further thought, I think it comes down to three things.
- A sense of place. I don’t have much of an imagination, and struggle to get a strong sense of the place where some novels are set, particularly if they move around a lot. One continuous location means there is a far greater chance it will more fully envelope my imagination.
- People-driven novels. Novels set in one place tend to really focus on characterisation, telling the stories of the people who live there. I think character, rather than journey-driven or more action-driven novels are probably my favourites, as again, I find them the most all-encompassing.
- History. I am something of a history buff. And novels set in one place tend to tell the story of that time and place with a great deal of detail, through the eyes of the characters which I love. I find I always get interesting titbits of information from this kind of novel that I wouldn’t ever have found otherwise.