Reading Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) the other day – part of which is set in Brussels, where the protagonist arrives shortly after the teenager Joe van Holsbeeck was killed for his MP3 player in the city’s central train station in 2006 – made me realise that I’ve never really paid any attention to novels set in Belgium. By that I mean novels by foreign authors, not Belgian authors, which, for one or other reason, I don’t really read much. So, after a little bit of research, it turns out that there are more novels by foreign authors than I thought that are at least in part set in Belgium. Besides some literary and general fiction, a number of recurrent subjects stand out: the Renaissance, World War I in Flanders and World War II in the Ardennes, and the battle of Waterloo (more from a romantic perspective than a military one). I also found a few crime novels and some real romance novels, and I’ve added a selection of works on the Belgian Congo. I haven’t included books that are out of print, nor books by Belgian authors. Virtually all book descriptions were found online. Needless to say, I haven’t read most of these books, so I don’t know what they’re worth… Leave me a comment if you have any suggestions or ideas.
Literary and general fiction
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67) tops this list because it’s the earliest novel I could think of that is in part set in Belgium. It is indeed at the siege of Namur (2 July – 1 September 1695), in Wallonia, that Uncle Toby was wounded in the groin, triggering his lifelong obsession with the siege, which he and his faithful sidekick Corporal Trim seek to reconstruct in ever more detail.
Published in 1847-1848, William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair tells the story of the parallel destinies of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley as they move (up and down) through society. The novel is partly set in Brussels around 1815, from where the British forces head to Waterloo to do battle with the ‘Corsican upstart,’ as he’s called in the novel.
Charlotte Brontë’s novels The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) and Villette (1853) were both based on the time she and Emily spent at the Héger girls boarding school in Brussels between 1842 and 1844, not too long after Belgian independence in 1830. Villette is meant to be the better of the two, The Professor having been written before Villette.
The Bridge of Years (1946) by the Belgian-born American writer May Sarton, takes place during the years between the world wars and explores the life of a Belgian family, the Duchesnes, and their mutual devotion which intensifies under the shadow of impending disaster.
The Nun’s Story (1956) is a 1956 novel by Kathryn Hulme that is based partly upon the experiences of her friend, Marie Louise Habets of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, a Belgian nurse and an ex-nun whom she met while working with refugees in post-war Europe.
Roberto Bolano’s novella Antwerp was apparently written in 1980, published in Spanish in 2002 and in an English translation in 2010. I don’t know whether it has anything whatsoever to do with the city of Antwerp or with Belgium for that matter, but the title alone means it deserves a place on this list.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star (1994): Edward Manners – thirty-three and disaffected – escapes to a Flemish city in search of a new life. Almost at once he falls in love with seventeen-year-old Luc, and is introduced to the twilight world of the 1890s Belgian painter Edgard Orst. It was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1994.
In The Rings of Saturn (1995), W.G. Sebald recalls his first trip to Brussels in 1964 and his visit to Waterloo, on the outskirts of the city, where the famous battle took place in 1815. Visiting the Panorama, a huge circular painting by Louis Demoulin depicting infantrymen and horses in the thick of battle, Sebald’s narrator meditates on the writing of history.
W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz (2001) opens in Antwerp, where the narrator visits the impressive train station and the local zoo and its nocturama. From Antwerp the narrator makes his way to the Fort of Breendonk, on the outskirts of the city, which the Germans used as a concentration camp in the Second World War. Brief trips to Brussels and Liège are also described briefly.
Ciaran Carson’s Shamrock Tea (2001) moves between Northern Ireland and Flanders, and notably the city of Geel, in the province of Antwerp, famous for its innovative treatment of mental illness (see my short review here).
What The Eye Doesn’t See (2003) by Alice Jolly is a romantic thriller set in Brussels and London, and tells the story of an amoral politician who faces disgrace following the suspicious death of his best friend’s wife.
Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street (2009): At the house on Zwarterzusterstraat four very different women have made their way from Africa to claim for themselves the riches of Europe. Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce are prostitutes. The murder of Sisi, shatters their already fragile world and as the women gather to mourn, the stories they have kept hidden are finally told.
Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy (2010) is a novel of childhood friends involving a love triangle, puppet masters, and reluctant spies. It moves between a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels.
Rear Entrance (2011) by David Barun Kumar Thomas is set in Brussels and discusses the lives and circumstances of four Indians looking to obtain a tourist visa to the UK. The timeline of the book is about a day and a half spanning the interview for the visas and obtaining it the next day. Much happens in the span of one day
Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), as mentioned above, is in part set in Brussels in the wake of the murder of a teenager for his MP3 player.
A Fish Trapped inside the Wind (2011), by Christien Gholson, begins in a small town in Belgium near the French border on the morning of the festival of St Woelfred. There are dead fish scattered everywhere seemingly blown in by the wind. The lives of six people who live in the town are about to be changed forever. A story with magic and fish – and the lost poems of Rimbaud.
Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 (2013) tells the story of Thomas Foley, a British civil servant working for the Central Office of Information, who is sent to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels to oversee the pub The Britannia. Awed by the Atomium as much as by one of the fair’s hostesses, he soon finds himself forgetting about his wife and child, just as he discovers the small role he is to play in these early days of the Cold War. See my short review here.
Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) is a historical fiction set partly in a tapestry atelier in Brussels over the period 1490 to 1492 and concerns a series of six Flemish tapestries known as the lady and the unicorn tapestries. See my short review here.
Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising (1986) is set in the 15th century, when intrepid merchants became the new knighthood of Europe. Among them, none is bolder or more cunning than Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer’s apprentice who schemes and swashbuckles his way to the helm of a mercantile empire.
Rudy Rucker’s As Above, So Below (2002) is a fictional account of the life and times of Pieter Bruegel the elder, the Dutch painter whose paintings have long defined our ideas of everyday life in 16th-century northern Europe.
Terence Morgan’s The Master of Bruges (2010) follows master painter Hans Memling in fifteenth-century Bruges as he falls in love with the daughter of his powerful patron, the Duke of Burgundy. Made reckless by his passion for Marie, he leaves to visit old allies in London, where he soon finds himself plunged into the final stages of the War of the Roses.
Battle of Waterloo (romance)
Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army: A Novel of Wellington, Napoleon, Love and War (1937) is set in Brussels in the months leading up to the Battle of Waterloo and it describes the almost frenzied behavior of the elite trying to make merry in the shadow of impending war
Teresa Grant, Imperial Scandal (2012): Nights filled with lavish balls, lush, bucolic afternoons… Removed to glamorous Brussels in the wake of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, Intelligence Agent Malcolm Rannoch and his wife, Suzanne, warily partake in the country’s pleasures. But with the Congress of Vienna in chaos and the Duke of Wellington preparing for battle, the festivities are cut short when Malcolm is sent on a perilous mission.
World War I (Flanders)
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (2005) evokes not only the camaraderie and humour of Willie and his regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but also the cruelty and sadness of war, and the divided loyalties that many Irish soldiers felt. Tracing their experiences through the course of the war, this narrative explores the events of the Easter Rising within Ireland.
In Ben Elton’s The First Casualty (2006), a British officer and celebrated poet is shot dead. A young English soldier is arrested and charged with his murder. Now, Douglas Kingsley, a conscientious objector, previously a detective, has to secure a conviction in this drama which explores some fundamental questions about murder, justice, and honour. The book is dedicated to Elton’s grandfathers, who fought on opposite sides in the First World War. You can read my review here.
At Midnight in a Flaming Town (2011), by Lorraine Bateman with Paul Cole, is set in Belgium at the outset of the First World War and is based on papers and biographies of people caught up in the war. It traces the fortunes of civilians who find themselves enduring an increasingly vengeful invasion of Belgium as an impatient German Army hastens to break through to Paris.
World War II (the Ardennes)
In William Eastlake’s Castle Keep (1966), it is December 1944 and a detachment of American soldiers has been assigned to guard an ancient castle in Belgium inhabited by an elderly aristocrat, his wife, and countless valuable artefacts. The soldiers relax until they find themselves caught up in the carnage of Hitler’s Ardennes offensive.
William Wharton’s Midnight Clear (1982) is set in the Ardennes on Christmas Eve 1944. Sergeant Will Knott and five other GIs are ordered close to the German lines to establish an observation post in an abandoned chateau. Here they play at being soldiers in what seems to be complete isolation. That is until the Germans begin revealing their whereabouts and leaving signs of their presence.
William P. McGivern’s Soldiers of ’44 (1979) tells the story of Sergeant Buell Docker and his fifteen-man mobile gun unit as they face some uncomfortable moments and decisions during the German Ardennes counteroffensive in December 1944, and Docker faces them again, months later, before a hostile board of old-line officers.
Anita Shreve’s Resistance (1995) is a tale of impossible love that leads us into a harrowing world where forbidden passions have catastrophic consequences. In a Nazi-occupied Belgian village, Claire Daussois, the wife of a resistance worker, shelters a wounded American bomber. Read my short review here.
Michael B. Oren’s Reunion (2003) is also set in the Ardennes, the site of a brutal, last-ditch assault by the Nazis in December 1944. The novel reunites the surviving members of the 133rd Infantry Battalion for one last chance to relive their youth, bury some old ghosts, and try to find answers to the mystery that has haunted them for 50 years.
In Michele Bailey’s The Cuckoo Case (1995), Matilda gets a call while her lover Luc is away, saying Luc’s stepson has been in an accident. She rushes to the hospital to visit him. After the boy is discharged she decides to visit him at Luc’s ex-wife’s house. She finds that Marie-Paule has been shot – and Luc is the prime suspect. The novel is set in Brussels.
In Nicolas Freeling’s Flanders Sky: A Henri Castang Mystery (1992), life in the cosmopolitan setting of Brussels proves more than either Inspector Castang or Vera bargained for. When his boss is arrested for murder and a child abuser becomes a crime statistic, Castang realizes that crime is universal–and his skills as an investigator are as relevant in the corridors of power as in the back alleys of Paris.
In Nicholas Royle’s Antwerp (2004), a brutal killer, inspired by the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux, leaves each of his victims posed as if in a painting. Meanwhile cult film director Johnny Vos is making a low-budget biopic about the same artist.
Gerard Readett’s Roadworks (2004) is technothriller set in Brussels in 2022: it’s the story of one man’s battle to be free of a system that oppresses him while dragging a hijacked city out of absolute gridlock.
Madeleine Ker’s The Bruges Engagement (1992): Destination: Belgium. Attractions: delicate lace, luscious chocolates, spired palaces and handsome Jan Breydel. Art expert Geraldine Simpson was awed by the Breydel estate’s collection of masterpieces. But businessman Jan Breydel was only interested in selling off the treasures – and persuading Geraldine that her fiance, Stuart, was the wrong man for her. Jan believed HE was the right man, of course–but she could hardly trust the ardent pursuit of such a legendary seducer…
Rebecca Buckley’s Midnight in Brussels (2009): In this captivating story of Amanda Conroy – a naive, inexperienced, young woman – whose husband of seven years disappears on Christmas Day, leaving her penniless in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas in a house trailer without a car and no means to support herself. Amanda’s married sister comes to the rescue, whisking her away to California to live in their new sprawling riverside home in the San Joaquin Valley – a far cry from the poor existence both girls experienced in the Arkansas hill country as they were growing up in their grandmother’s care. Amanda’s dream to one day travel to Bruges, Belgium – where lacemaking and medieval quaintness abound – at last becomes a reality. Now she must decide what she wants: an independent life in Belgium or a life in California with the man who adores her.
Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist (1997) is set in the Belgian Congo in 1959-1960 and tells the story of the country’s independence through the eyes of an Irish journalist, Gillespie, who’s in Léopoldville to win back his lover, Inès, but gets caught up in the political events happening around him.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) passes briefly through an unnamed Brussels, “a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre”, the narrator says. The offices of the Société Anonyme Belge du Haut-Congo, which Conrad’s narrator visits briefly, were set in Rue Brederode, at the back of the Royal Palace.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2010) is a subtle and enlightening novel about a neglected human rights pioneer, the Irish nationalist Roger Casement, who was hanged by the British government for treason in 1916.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998) offers a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption. An American missionary and his family travel to the Congo in 1959, a time of tremendous political and social upheaval.
Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined (2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama): In her bar/brothel in the rainforest of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the shrewd, larger-than-life madam both protects and profits from the women who come to her seeking refuge from rape and violence at the hands of government and rebel soldiers alike.
Paul Pickering’s The Leopard’s Wife (2010) is a novel of love in an impossible land.
Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case (1960) tells the story of Querry, a world famous architect, who is the victim of a terrible attack of indifference: he no longer finds meaning in art or pleasure in life. Arriving anonymously at a Congo leper village, he is diagnosed as the mental equivalent of a ‘burnt-out case’, a leper who has gone through a stage of mutilation.
Congo is a 1980 science fiction novel by Michael Crichton. In the heart of Africa, three intrepid adventurers are desperate to find the fabulous diamonds of the lost city of Zinj. They encounter the Kigani cannibals, flaming volcanoes and ferocious gorillas – and Amy, the cuddly gorilla who’s fluent in sign language.