From modern romances to sweeping family sagas, these Booker Prize-nominated novels will take you on an unforgettable trip through Italy’s heart and soul

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.

For more of our summer reading lists, click here.

Illustrations by Fran Labuschagne

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Italy. The country that gave us the Renaissance and tiny coffees, and made it acceptable to have that all-important mid-afternoon holiday aperitif. With more masterpieces per square mile than any other country, it’s a land whose vistas have been inspiring writers and poets since day uno

With holiday season upon us, we’ve compiled a list of Booker Prize-nominated novels to take you on a journey through Italy’s heart and soul - its medieval towns and hill-top villages, its gritty underbelly and, sometimes dark, history.

Perhaps you’re taking a Roman holiday and want to soak in the atmosphere, or maybe you just fancy travelling to Italy from the comfort of home, through a story or two. Whatever your journey, these novels provide the perfect backdrop. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018) 

Irish writer Sally Rooney captured the heart of the literary world when she wrote Normal People.

Selling more than three million copies, Connell and Marianne’s on-again, off-again relationship conveyed the millennial condition with tender precision. It went on to be adapted for TV and has since been streamed more than 65 million times, sparking 150k devotees to follow an Instagram account dedicated solely to Connell’s necklace, while Marianne’s haircut became the pandemic’s most sought-after ‘lewk’. 

While most of the novel is based in Ireland, it’s the scenes set in Trieste, northern Italy, that gave readers wanderlust. After a summer backpacking in Europe, Connell travels there to meet Marianne at her parent’s villa:

‘They get to Marianne’s house at three, in baking afternoon heat. The undergrowth outside the gate hums with insects and a ginger cat is lying on the bonnet of a car across the street. Through the gate Connell can see the house, the same way it looks in the photographs she’s sent him, a stonework facade and white-shuttered windows.’

They eat pasta and drink wine while basking in the evening’s dry heat. Sitting on the precipice of adulthood, much is left unsaid.  

Rooney’s zeitgeist-capturing story went on to be longlisted for the prize in 2018. That year, it also won Waterstones’ Book of the Year and won Best Novel at the Costa Awards. It is, without a doubt, the publishing industry’s equivalent of a blockbuster. 

Sally Rooney

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014) 

On an ordinary day in 2013, Ali Smith saw a picture of a fresco in Frieze magazine that stopped her in her tracks. It was ‘a full-page reproduction of a painting so beautiful that it did something to my breathing and I nearly choked’, she told the Observer. That image inspired her to visit its home in a Renaissance palace in Ferrara, a medieval town near Bologna. And so How to Be Both was born. 

It’s a novel of two parts. One introduces George, a 1960s teenager struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death. The other tells the story of a real-life Renaissance artist from the 1460s, Francesco del Cossa. Somewhere in the middle of this dual-narrative, George’s family travel to Ferrara and visit del Cossa’s frescos. This brief moment, on George’s final trip with her mum, anchors the two protagonists together. Consumed by grief, George becomes obsessed with del Cossa’s work in a desperate attempt to get closer to the person her mother was during her lifetime. 

Laced with Smith’s signature style, the novel plays with narrative devices and moves back and forth through time. Purposefully experimental, the partition between the stories allows it to be read both ways, led by either character. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 2014, on the strength of what the Washington Post described as ‘death-defying storytelling acrobatics that don’t seem entirely possible’.

Ali Smith

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (2014) 

It’s almost impossible to mention Naples without whispering The Neopolitan Novels in the same breath. Originally planned as just one novel, Ferrante’s quartet follows Lenù and Lila from their barefoot childhood across six decades, as they attempt to escape the confines of their violent and impoverished upbringing.

Fans of the series have traced Ferrante’s neighbourhood setting to Rione Luzzatti, an eastern borough in Naples. There is no Renaissance architecture here. Its veneer is tired and noticeably utilitarian:

‘As the train slowed down, sliding into the urban space, I was seized by an anxious exhaustion. I noticed the ugliness of the periphery, with the small grey apartment buildings beyond the tracks; the pylons, the lights of the signals, the stone parapets.’

Ferrante’s domestic dramas have commanded legions of devotees who are fiercely protective of the author, who continues to operate under a pseudonym. Her visceral prose makes the struggles of the two women forever entwined with their city all the more real. Selling over 15 million copies worldwide, The Story of the Lost Child was the quartet’s final instalment and was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2016.

Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco in HBO’s My Brilliant Friend

The Lost Father by Marina Warner (1991) 

It’s impossible to truly know Italy without understanding its modern history, in particular the grip fascism held on the area in the early part of the 20th century.  

This was the driving force for novelist Marina Warner. ‘I wanted to find out what my mother’s life in southern Italy was like - she was born the year Mussolini came to power’, she told Literary Review. ‘Lost Father is the result of trying to imagine what it was like to be a young woman under those conditions.’ 

‘Like the needle her mother would burnish in a candle flame before probing for a splinter under her skin, memories of those days pierced her with sudden clarity.’

So begins Warner’s imaginary memoir, the story of a woman’s search for her own and her family’s identity, interwoven with the rise of the fascist movement, which shows the slow unravelling of a culture due to the oppressive rule of ‘The Leader’. Broken and bruised, the family emigrate to the USA to begin a new life, as many others did at the time. But instead of opportunity and prosperity, the journey only brings them further hardship.  

Warner’s heritage and education have created the perfect foundation for this big old family saga set in the Italian Peninsula. Her evocative descriptions of life in an Italian village, along with its traditions and superstitions, earned it a Booker shortlisting in 1988

Marina Warner

The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard (1970) 

A young woman moves to Italy to escape her past and learns about life and love along the way. OK, this could easily be the synopsis of a buy-one-get-one-free airport romcom. But, thankfully, it’s actually one of the nominees for the 2010 Lost Man Booker - a hidden gem of the Booker catalogue. 

Set in Naples after the Second World War, The Bay of Noon follows Jenny, who has recently been brought there to work at a NATO base. Lonely and adrift, she follows up an introduction on a whim and a friendship with talented writer Gioconda ensues. Jenny is seduced by her glamorous lifestyle, along with her film director lover, and at the same time becomes drawn to a man at the base.  

Jenny’s tangled relationships grow in intensity and complexity, but the novel’s deepest relationship is with Naples. It’s a love letter to the Italian city, where Hazzard herself lived in during the 50s. She brings it to life by juxtaposing its grit and decay with its beauty and grandeur, in the listless heat. This one deserves a spot on the shelf next to The Neapolitan Quartet

Shirley Hazzard

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall (2009) 

Sarah Hall’s longlisted novel takes us into Italy’s green heart, Umbria. Often overlooked by its showboating cousin, Tuscany, this is a little locale that packs a punch. Its rolling hills and foothold in art history mean it is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, which is precisely why Hall set her novel there.  

Four parallel stories, separate yet in some ways entwined. Giorgio, a dying Italian painter who limits his artwork to depictions of bottles in his small villa in Bologna. Annette, a young girl who sells flowers in the local village with the shattering knowledge her sight is slowly fading. Peter, a British landscape artist who finds himself trapped by a rock fall on a sketching recce. Susan, a photographer and twin who is immobilised by the trauma of losing her brother.

Hall binds these narratives together through small details in each plot. Giorgio teaches Annette and convinces her to use her ‘inner eye’ as she loses her vision, a creativity she channels into her flower arrangements. Peter, who previously had correspondence with Giorgio, reflects on his life amid his accident. Susan is his daughter, and her lost brother is his son. 

An existential journey over the course of five decades, How to Paint a Dead Man reveals how people are creatively bound by art, and by love. The novel has been highly praised for its poetic use of language and evocative descriptions of the Umbrian landscape, with the Guardian proclaiming Hall as ‘one of the most significant and exciting of Britain’s young novelists’.  

Sarah Hall