From whip-smart whodunnits to novels that break all the rules, these Booker-nominated titles capture the France we know and love – and show you another side of it, too

Wherever your travels take you this summer, we believe there’s a work of fiction among the 500+ titles in the Booker Library to not only complement every type of trip, but enhance it.

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Illustrations by Fran Labuschagne

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

‘People wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris… the answer seems simple to me: because it’s the best place to pick ideas.’ Roman Payne 

France is the backdrop to many a classic novel, an inspiration to the artists and writers who found solace and solidarity amongst its cafés, bistros and nightlife. Summer is here, which means it’s the perfect time to take a trip to the world’s most popular holiday destination, and at the same time indulge a love of lit.  

These Booker Prize-nominated novels will take you on a journey through the France you know and love, and show a side of it you may be unfamiliar with, too. By way of its provincial villages, famous cuisine and enchanting Riviera, here’s our guide to everyone’s favourite second country.

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor (2015)  

In early 80s France, literary theorist Roland Barthes is hit by a laundry truck on a Parisian street after a lunch with presidential candidate François Mitterrand. Barthes was carrying a secret document containing information on the mysterious ‘seventh function’ of language. Was this accident - or assassination? Everyone’s a suspect, and on the case are police superintendent Jacques Bayard and Simon Herzog, an academic with an expertise in semiotics.   

Sounds serious? Trust us, it’s not. This is a whip-smart detective spoof riddled with mischief and executed with bucketloads of panache. Its plot is a tongue-in-cheek look at the French intellectual scene and is brimming with self-referential humour. Of course, we would expect nothing less from the author of international bestseller and award-winner HHhH, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt for a first novel.  

The Seventh Function was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2018 and the London Review of Books described it as ‘an exercise in pure intellectual slapstick… It’s possible that his novel shares a few shreds of DNA with Zoolander’.  Buckle up for a wildly inventive whodunit with a difference.  

Laurent Binet

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (2011)  

The luxe and sultry French Riviera is the setting for Deborah Levy’s novel about secrets and desire, where a family vacation in Nice is interrupted by a strange young woman.  

Upon arrival at their holiday home, Joe and Isabel Jacobs spot something odd in the pool. They think it’s a bear, before realising it’s actually a naked girl. At first, they mistake her for dead - but Kitty Finch is very much alive. 

Her entrance makes an impact, and that’s exactly what she intended. Kitty appears fragile and broken, with her mental health dangerously on the edge. Turn’s out, she’s a big fan of Joe’s poetry and - after somewhat curiously being invited to stay by Isabel - her predatory behaviour towards Joe begins…

Levy’s novel has duplicity at every turn and is constantly disquieting. Her prose is at times sensual, yet always tense. ‘She asked him to open the window so she could hear the insects calling to each other in the forest. He wound down the window and asked her, gently, to keep her eyes on the road.’   

‘By the time I had finished Swimming Home I had become a different sort of writer to the one I was when I started it,’ Levy told BookBrowse.  

This fever dream of a novel was her first shortlisting for the Booker Prize in 2012, and she has since made the list twice more. One to be savoured in a warm summer breeze.    

Deborah Levy

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (1984)  

Julian Barnes whisks us back to 1800s France in his unique, rule-breaking novel. It’s a fictional biography of the French novelist and thinker Gustave Flaubert told from the perspective of Geoffrey Braithwaite, a cranky retiree and Flaubert aficionado who enjoys a spot of sleuthing.  

To unravel his literary hero’s secrets, Braithwaite travels to France and visits places of importance to the great man himself. The plot hangs on the search for a curious stuffed parrot that inspired Flaubert’s masterpiece, A Simple Heart. Can Braithwaite pick the correct parrot out of the line-up, and get rid of the pretender?   

Barnes has downright refused to follow any literary conventions in his novel. Fact and fiction are blended, he fuses real correspondence with fantasy, adds a slice of satire, and then layers in multiple timelines, too. Is there method to this madness? Absolutely. The narrative arrangement is unconventional, and not many writers could pull this off. Thankfully, Barnes is very much at the top of his game.  

The result is a witty work of art that was shortlisted in 1984. Novelist John Irving called it ‘a gem: an unashamed literary novel that is also unashamed to be readable, and broadly entertaining’.

Julian Barnes

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne (2018)  

Away from the silhouette of Notre Dame and the Champagne-laden cruises on the Seine exists the dark underbelly of Paris. This is the gritty setting for Vernon Subutex 1, which could be seen as a contemporary fictional version of Orwell’s classic Down and Out in Paris and London.   

Vernon Subutex is a Parisian legend, the owner of an achingly-cool record store in Bastille that is a magnet for music fans, slackers and weirdos from across the city. But the ascent of the internet sees him fall into financial difficulty and, with no choice but to default on rent, he loses the shop.  

This fall from grace finds Subutex in ruins, on the streets of Paris and moving from pillar to post. In his destitution, he remains unaware that there is an internet quest underway to find him, to locate some unseen videos to which only he has the key…  

Shortlisted for the International Booker in 2018, this is a novel of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll at both its best and worst. The rotating cast features an endless array of charmless and unlikeable characters. There is routine drug taking, misogyny, pornography, racism and an overriding sense of destitution. It all feels a bit… gross.  

Yet Despentes’ writing refrains from moral superiority as it casts a non-judgemental spotlight on this marginal segment of society. While not for the faint of heart, this is a vivid trip through a Paris rarely shown in any guidebooks.  

Virginie Despentes

Daughters of the House by Michèle Roberts (1992)  

‘The bus plunged along the banks of the Seine. Thérèse remembered strings of ancient houses, black and cream displays of timbering, plaster, thatch. The great flat river sliding between cliffs. A calm green emptiness which turned in spring to a pink carnival of flowering orchards.’ 

And so Michèle Roberts draws us into village life in rural France on the opening page of Daughters of the House.  The year is 1950, soon after the Second World War. Thérèse and Léonie, French and English cousins of the same age, spend a hazy summer together in an old manor in Blemont, Normandy. Their time is spent combing the nooks of the cavernous house and whiling away their time outdoors. But while it sounds idyllic, the girls waver between being best friends and fierce rivals as they quietly unpick the village’s secrets, including what happened in the house’s mysterious cellar. As they do so, they reveal some terrifying betrayals that become so difficult to bear that the girls do not speak to each other again for 20 years.   

Roberts laces a sense of foreboding in her novel that perfectly captures the atmosphere of inward-looking French provincial life. Her detailing is evocative, from the indulgent foodstuffs of oeufs soubises and gateaux, to the pattern of the wallpaper that adorns the walls of the old house.  

Her story of secrets, deception and rivalry earned her a spot on the shortlist in 1992 and won the W.H. Smith Literary Award. The Guardian called it ‘a brave and richly imagined novel, full of thrilling set pieces’, and added: ‘the new prestige it seems likely to earn for one of our best writers is long overdue.’  

Michele Roberts

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins (2019)  

Every day, a man stands on the bend of the road in the spot his wife and child were previously killed, decades before. A marriage disintegrates under the shade of an old lime tree. A hitchhiker stands in a blind spot, waiting to be picked up. All of these characters are bound by their location, an isolated village in the mountains.   

This is a collection of 13 interconnected short stories set around a community in rural France, existing on the fringes. The stories stand alone, but upon reading we realise we are seeing the same characters and events but from different points of view. It’s a snapshot of real life in France away from the hustle and bustle, the glamour and posturing.   

The stories are often moving, with the characters affected by loss, tragedy and suicide. Pagano has infused pathos into what Le Monde called an ‘endlessly beautiful and poignant’ read. She has won multiple awards for her work, with Faces on the Tip of My tongue hitting the International Booker Prize longlist in 2020.    

Emmanuelle Pagano

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