10 of the best novels set in Greece – that will take you there | Travel


Greece may be one of the most written-about countries, so while choosing this list has been a pleasure, there has been agony involved as well. I first went there more than 30 years ago, and it was books that inspired me – not always novels, and I have cheated a couple of times in my choices here. There is a great deal of excellent non-fiction about Greece – I would pick out Patrick Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller, though I also wish I could have made more choices by Greek authors, particularly as the past few years have inspired some brilliant writing (check out Austerity Measures if you like poetry, and there are several novels). However, this is a selection for the English reader – “a transport to Greece” in troubled times. Hopefully, these books will take you there and lead you on to other things.

An ancient Roman mosaic of Odysseus on his ship



An ancient Roman mosaic of Odysseus on his ship. Photograph: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

First cheat – some would say this isn’t a novel; I would say it’s one of the first. I have never stood on the deck of a Greek ferry, watching the islands slip by, without thinking of the magnificent, mercurial character of Odysseus. And the descriptions of Greece! “Rosy-fingered dawn” is undeniable. Some people have problems with the “wine-dark sea”, but really, take a good look at the right time. The only problem is picking the best translation. I’m a fan of Lattimore, Fagles and Fitzgerald. I am also very excited to read a new one by Emily Wilson. In fact, I’ve read the same book in several different versions, which must count for something, including a bad attempt at the original Greek. It’s a foundation for all reading.

Cover of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die

Mary Renault was one of the writers who sent me to Greece in the first place. I read her in my early teens and her “historical” takes on myth are still a firm favourite. This, and its sequel The Bull from the Sea, are a retelling of the life of Theseus, and the first book has action in the Peloponnese, Crete and Athens – all places that have played an important part in my life. Renault does not shy away from the difficult aspects residing in these tales. There is dark stuff here, and no real heroes, either. If you enjoyed Game of Thrones, Renault might be where to go next.

Penélope Cruz as Pelagia in the 2001 film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.



Penélope Cruz as Pelagia in the 2001 film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Photograph: Buena Vista

When I asked people what novel conjures up the landscapes and scents of Greece, this was among the most popular replies. I’m not 100% behind it, but agree in general. It’s similar to the movie, which looks gorgeous but has off-putting aspects (the lead actor, for example); in the case of the book, it is some of the politically based caricatures of the communist resistance during the second world war. It caused a lot of controversy when it came out and some of my Greek friends won’t go near it. But its evocation of a lost Kefalonia, the still-beautiful island it’s set on, is perfect. Above all, Pelagia is a character that many who know Greece will recognise – feisty and passionate.

cover of Little Infamies, by Panos Karnezis

The location of the unnamed village in Little Infamies is not given, and Karnezis has said it is not necessarily even Greek, although all the names and details point in that direction. I like to imagine it in the Peloponnese, but perhaps only because that’s the region whose villages I know best. A series of interconnecting short stories lays bare the local life, and anyone familiar with this environment will find it deeply familiar. Even the mythological touches make sense – you’re always half-expecting a centaur to pop up in Greece and engage you in conversation. There are dark secrets beneath the surface of the village, but Karnezis always treats his characters with deep affection.

Milo Parker as ‘Gerry’ Durrell, with Keeley Hawes



Milo Parker as ‘Gerry’ Durrell, with Keeley Hawes in the ITV production of The Durrells.

My second cheat, I’m afraid, as this is clearly more of an autobiography, but it does read like a comic novel and much of it contains an element of fiction – for instance, Larry, or Lawrence (see below), didn’t live in the same house as the others. He also called the book “very wicked [but] very funny”. As a description of an eccentric, dysfunctional family the book is a blast, making you half grateful and half sorry that your family is not similar; but it’s on this list for its descriptions of Corfu, and specifically the landscape and nature. A friend of mine, who has not read it since childhood, recently summed it up perfectly, “I can still hear the cicadas and see the lizards scuttling over sun-drenched rocks.”

cover of Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture

With all this myth and nature roiling around it is good to remind ourselves that the Greeks are also famous for science, maths and logic. Not that this book is without emotion. Uncle Petros is a mathematician laid low by an unsolvable problem, and generally considered a failure. Only his unnamed nephew still thinks he may be redeemable. Don’t be scared off by the maths: this is essentially a study of a human relationship. In between all this we get a superb rendering of a certain facet of Athens, with its old houses and apartments, courtyard gardens and elegant decay.

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

Hills and olive groves in south-west Crete.



Hills and olive groves in south-west Crete. Photograph: Terry Williams/Getty Images

Crete, particularly its mountains and southern coast, was one of my first loves in Greece, so I have to include a couple of books about the island. I must also include some Kazantzakis. Zorba is too obvious, although I do recommend it, and it (secretly) took its inspiration from the Peloponnese, despite being set in Crete. This brooding tale of Captain Michalis (the original title of the book) takes place during the Turkish occupation, and the fact that the local Turkish bey is his blood brother shows the complications of the time. It all boils up into a properly Shakespearean tragedy while showing the characters’, and the author’s, deep love of their island.

Cover of Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth

Caves are important in Greece, providing a connection between our world and the hidden one. Herakles and Orpheus both descended to Hades through one, and Theseus’s labyrinth is surely another. I once climbed down a steel ladder into a deep cave in the Cretan mountains. At the bottom was a rather macabre shrine to a local saint, lit only by my feeble torch. I had an absolute panic attack, and blame much of it on this book, an intriguing mix of adventure story, mythology and horror. It’s not a masterpiece – Durrell’s non-fiction on Greece is better – but it nails that chthonic feeling that rests just below the blue skies and waters of Greece.

Fishing boats on clear water at Gerolimenas, on the Mani peninsula.



Fishing boats at Gerolimenas, on the Mani peninsula. Photograph: Benny Marty/Getty Images

Talking of dark undercurrents, this little-known book by a famous author gets beneath the skin of Greece magnificently. It is partly set in the Mani, a rocky and often barren part of the southern mainland where my family lived for several years. It is a starkly beautiful area, dotted with tower house fortifications and small Byzantine chapels, but there is always something lurking in the landscape. Imagine a breeze through olive trees for a moment, and then see what DeLillo does with it: “Wind blew across the olive groves, causing a wild tremor, a kind of panic, treetops going silver.” Anyone who has visited this part of the world outside of the somnambulant summer will instantly know this.

Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths by Lucy Coats and Anthony Lewis

cover of atticus the storyteller’s 100 Greek myths

This is possibly my favourite book on this list, mainly because I have spent many an evening reading it to my kids. The Greek myths can be deeply weird and confusing – check out the Robert Graves version if you don’t believe me – but children seem to cope with them much more intuitively than adults. The premise behind this collection is genius. Atticus, a tale teller, sets off from his home in Crete to a festival of stories near Troy, travelling through much of Greece. On the way, in exchange for food, lodging and transportation, he relates the myths that are appropriate to the area, starting with the birth of Zeus and ending with the Trojan war. It’s ostensibly a kids’ book, but I would happily read this to myself, and much of my knowledge of Greek mythology rests on it.

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