For holiday-makers headed to Hawaii or the Seychelles, visiting a tropical island lets you play castaway—at least for a little while. There’s an addictive sense of escape in places that offer up surf, sand, and—usually—a slower pace than the mainland. “I knew that on that island one was driven back into the past. There was so much space, so much silence, so few meetings that one too easily saw out of the present,” John Fowles wrote in The Magus, his haunting 1965 novel of love and mind games in the Greek isles.
Still, island life isn’t all about flip flops and fancy drinks. Existential obstacles including poverty, colonialism, political entrenchment, economic stagnancy, cultural clashes, and climate change challenge our idyllic images of islands. With both fantasies and sometimes-ugly realities in mind, we created this list of our favorite reads focused on spots from the South Pacific to Captiva Island, Florida. It’s the latest installment in our ongoing Around the World in Books series, and we hope it inspires you to push off into the blue by turning a page—or by booking your passage.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos, 1989. In 1950s New York City, two musical brothers find themselves longing for the sounds and streets of their native Havana, recording “songs written to take the listeners back to the plazas of small towns in Cuba.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel depicts their limited stateside success (a tour on a flamingo pink bus, appearing once on I Love Lucy), but it’s the rich descriptions of love, homesickness, and Cuban food (bacalao, heaps of fried yucca) that will stay with you.
Saint X: A Novel, by Alexis Schaitkin, 2020. On an unnamed Caribbean island, a restless 18-year-old girl goes on vacation with her wealthy parents and ends up dead. Two local men are suspected of her murder. Though the set up for Schaitkin’s thriller sounds like yet another missing-woman whodunnit, the book ends up taking a wide-ranging, philosophical look at how a single death can impact an entire community and how poverty and plush resorts coexist in “paradise.”
Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1955. Shells plucked from the beach on Florida’s Captiva Island inspired Lindbergh’s poetic musings on marriage, motherhood, and the simpler living the seaside brings. “I must remember to see with island eyes,” writes the author/aviator (and wife of Charles Lindbergh) while packing her bags to return to real life. This book, short enough to breeze through in an afternoon, will do the same for readers.
Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje, 1982. Like everything Canada’s Ondaatje writes (i.e. The English Patient), this memoir of revisiting his native Sri Lanka courses with measured, melodic prose. Weaving together magical realism, poetry, fact, and fiction, he documents return pilgrimages to his birthplace, that tropical “pendant off the ear of India.” Amid the lush, green landscapes, Ondaatje recounts the choruses of tree frogs, journeys in rickety trains, and memories of his eccentric alcoholic father.
The Magus, by John Fowles, 1965. A young Englishman flees his girlfriend to teach school on a fictional Greek island, only to become ensnared in a rich villa owner’s manipulative, downright freaky mind games—think reenacted myths and erotic romance. The novel’s action and misdirection play out against windswept mountains, crumbling ruins, and Aegean views.
Shark Dialogues, by Kiana Davenport, 1994. A one-eyed cannibal, a Tahitian princess, and a sorrowful leper number among the vividly sketched islanders populating this multi-generational novel of Hawaii’s history and melting-pot culture. Using one family as a lens—and dabbling in magical realism—Davenport explores the islands’ misty rainforests, laid-back towns, and intricate folklore.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008). In 1946, after corresponding with members of a book club located in the Guernsey Islands off the English coast, a young woman becomes fascinated by their tales of life during German occupation during World War II. The heartwarming novel heats up when she goes to visit her pen pals, falling for both a local hunk and the islands’ cliff-framed, old-school charm.
Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World, by Joann Druitt, 2007. Some 285 miles south of New Zealand, the Auckland Islands are storm-wracked, bird-rich subarctic dots of land which travel outfitters nickname the “Galapagos of the Southern Ocean.” Druitt, a well-known maritime historian, traces the privations—and fleeting hopeful moments—of sailors marooned here after two 19th-century shipwrecks. Harrowing details about how the crews thrive (or not) include seal-hunting, forge-building, and, ew, cannibalism. It’s a history tome that’ll appeal to both adventure travelers and Survivor fans.
The Master Blaster, by P.F. Kluge, 2012. In Saipan, four quirky expatriates, including a travel writer and Bangladeshi laborer, experience the push and pull of existence on this remote U.S. territory in the South Pacific. “A far-off island where the American dream curdles” is how the New York Times describes the book’s evocation of its subject. Novelist, literature professor, and travel writer, Kluge nurtured his affection for the characters and conflicts of island outposts as a late-1960s Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia. He has since written and reported a number of fiction and non-fiction books (The Edge of Paradise, Biggest Elvis, The Williamson Turn, and the essay collection Keepers: Home & Away) that interrogate the provocative role America plays in the Pacific Islands. In The Master Blaster, Saipan is a postcard-perfect setting with a seedy underbelly, a battle-scarred island with an identity crisis. It makes for a fascinating journey.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester, 2003. Off the coast of Java, Indonesia, the Krakatoa volcanic island erupted in 1883, killing thousands and upending the natural and geopolitical world. Winchester’s travelogue-meets-history book dives deep into the story, following characters from Dutch traders to blood-thirsty, anti-western gangs. Along the way, he describes both the dreamlike islands where the trouble began as well as far-flung areas (Europe, New Zealand) that saw climate changes—and dazzling, dust-glazed sunsets—for years after the explosion.