How to Pair a Novel with a Map

My previous craft essay for this website, “When Stereotypes Collide,” recounted some of the disasters that befell me during my brief career as a cab driver in New York City. While writing it, though, I remembered once again how that difficult job bestowed a benefit that has served me well in all the years since: a decent sense of direction.

Perhaps I developed a small version of the abilities of London taxi cab drivers, who have to study for years and memorize each and every street in the city in order to qualify for a license. After completing this Herculean mental task, it turns out they’ve also grown a larger-than-average hippocampus: the portion of the brain that is, according to Scientific American, “crucial for long-term memory and spatial navigation.”

I do not easily get lost in a new city. I can quickly orient myself—in fact, I love the task of building in my mind a map filled with what were once unfamiliar streets.

Maybe this is why I love to read novels that name streets and places that actually exist. If you wish, you can follow along on a map and imagine yourself beside the characters. Yet there’s nothing generic about such a map/novel pairing (much like the pairing of a fine wine with a memorable cheese). Each one, I’ve found, can create its own story within the reader, and often surprisingly so. What follows are four of my favorite matchmakings.

I first discovered this pleasure back in 1999, while reading the novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by José Saramago (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature the year before). I had become obsessed with Portuguese culture and was working my way through Saramago’s oeuvre while also preparing for an approaching summer family vacation in Lisbon.

The novel begins with Ricardo Reis’ arrival in Lisbon, after living several years in Brazil. Reis doesn’t quite understand why he is here, except that the news of the death of a friend, the great poet Fernando Pessoa, has impelled him to return. What Reis also doesn’t know is that he is imaginary, a figment of the dead poet’s imagination. Pessoa’s poetic practice had been to create fictional poets who then wrote poems in their own particular style. Reis may consider himself a poet, but all his poems have been written by Pessoa.

Pessoa’s death has somehow released Reis, given him a kind of independent life, but because Reis doesn’t actually exist, he has no identity papers, and so suspicious agents of the despotic Salazar regime trail Reis throughout his wanderings along the streets of Lisbon. And wander he does, in search of what, he isn’t sure, until he encounters Pessoa’s ghost.

Pessoa delicately tries to warn his creation, Reis, that his condition won’t last forever and that, like Pessoa himself, Reis will slowly fade away. But Reis is unable or unwilling to understand this.

I read Saramago’s novel slowly, a foldout map by my side (1999 was of course years before the era of Google Maps and smart phones). I followed Reis’ movements through the streets of Lisbon, walking with him across the Bairro Alto, descending the Rua do Norte to the Rua de Camões and wherever else he rambled, as if I was one of those police agents shadowing his solitary travels. But I had a different motive—I wanted to learn how to find my way around a city I had long wished to visit. I read and reread passages from the novel and dogged Reis’ steps; instead of his being my suspect, he served as my teacher, my guide.

The first day my family and I spent in Lisbon turned out to be, by coincidence, the birthday of Fernando Pessoa—his 111th, had he still been alive. Pessoa is a hero of Portuguese culture, and so celebrations were held throughout the city. We trekked from one to another, and how odd—like Ricardo Reis, we too ranged through Lisbon in search of Pessoa! And to my surprise, I was able to navigate through the various downtown neighborhoods, along streets I’d previously only set foot on in my mind. At one point, I had the secretly satisfying experience of giving directions to a cab driver, who hesitated where to turn in a maze of side streets.


By the time I read Geoffrey Wolff’s whip-smart novel, Providence, in 2022, I already had a map of the city in my head. Six years earlier, my wife Alma and I had retired to Rhode Island, and I’d spent the time since then learning how to get around in my adopted city.

So I didn’t need to consult Google maps to find my way to all the locations mentioned in the novel. But Providence is set during the mid-1980s, a time when a certain Mob that otherwise will remain unnamed still ran much of the city’s business, and the mayor at the time was working on his first Federal indictment. So, reading this novel added detail to streets that I thought I knew—-unusual detail, provided by one of the novel’s main characters, Adam Dwyer, a lawyer known for successfully defending the often clearly guilty.

His clients included a burglar “running along Lloyd Avenue” carrying a stolen set of “barbells and three hundred pounds of weights,” and the thief who stole a golf cart from the Agawam Country Club and was “last seen driving south on Massasoit Avenue,” not to mention the “two brothers who removed a picnic table from a highway rest stop, and were caught for erratic driving on I-95 when the wasps attached to its trestle began to circulate angrily through the station wagon.” And don’t get me started on the city’s beautiful Benefit Street, which in the 1980s was subject to frequent break-ins by thieves much like the novel’s dangerously inventive criminals named Skippy and Baby.

Now, thanks to Geoffrey Wolff’s novel, I walk and drive through a palimpsest of Providence, a city where, in my mind, the unruly past and a more placid present rub elbows.

Oh, those stolen barbells.


The French writer Maylis de Kerangal’s novel, Eastbound, is set in Siberia, a location I’ve had zero intention of visiting. I’ve long imagined Siberia as an essentially empty place, its vast flat Steppes dotted with an equally extensive gulag filled with political prisoners. Yet while this is true, it’s not the complete picture.

De Kerangel’s short, intense novel takes place a little over ten years ago (and presciently so), in 2012, on a Trans-Siberian railway train heading east into deep Siberia, its third-class cars filled with new recruits in the Russian army. They’re being shipped from Moscow to a distant city to begin their training. One of these young draftees, Aliocha, is unwilling to serve and desperate to desert, but how to accomplish such a thing?

Then he meets on the train Hélène, an older French woman who is trying to escape as well—from her partner, a Russian dissident named Ivan who has recently left France with her and returned to his home country to snag a cushy apparatchik position in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. She can already see the beginnings of his change, can imagine the corrupt future, and wants no part of it. So she heads east, to Vladivostok, in the opposite direction Ivan might expect her to take. Aliocha and Hélène share no common language, but they do share a powerful desire to flee, and soon she is hiding him in her first-class cabin, protecting him as best she can from sudden searches as the train plows through the seemingly endless stretches of Siberia.

The train makes stops at one city after another, so of course I couldn’t resist following on Google Maps. The maps’ webpages for these cities included photos, and the size and modernity of each one surprised me. I’d never given much thought to Siberia or Siberians, but ordinary people do indeed live there, in perfectly presentable cities that look terrific, especially during the region’s 27 minute-long summer.

City of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia

City of Irkutsk, Siberia

On the other hand, these cities (and others in Russia’s enormous interior) are, in our present historical moment, where young men have been and are still being forcibly conscripted into the army to serve as near-suicidal cannon fodder in Russia’s brutal, unprovoked war with Ukraine. While I have nothing but contempt for Russia’s aggression, I’ve now gained sympathy for those who have been coerced into participating, by seeing where they once lived. And so, once again fiction, with the accompaniment of a map, surprises me with another view of the world I thought I knew.


Autumn Rounds, a novel by Jacques Poulin, takes place in another part of the world I’d never given much attention: the long and wide St. Lawrence River that stretches north of Quebec City.

Yet Autumn Rounds has become one of my favorite novels; I’ve read it several times, and am currently reading it aloud, chapter by chapter, in the evenings to my wife Alma. What is it about Poulin’s short novel that has turned me into such an admirer of its gentle pleasures?

The main character (only identified as “the Driver”) of Autumn Rounds drives a bookmobile along the St. Lawrence’s northern coastline to one small town after another, delivering free books (provided by Quebec’s Ministry of Culture) to a network of readers at each stop. As the novel begins, the Driver seems sure that this summer season of distributing books will be his last.

He is afraid of growing old alone. So he has accumulated the tools he’ll need for a peaceful suicide. But then he meets Marie, a woman his age who manages an amateur troupe of performers visiting from France. The Driver and Marie immediately feel a connection, but it’s a connection they both seem fearful of trusting.

The novel proceeds as the acrobats and musicians of the troupe, in a commandeered school bus, and the Driver, in his bookmobile, travel together. Sometimes Marie drives with the performers, other times she accompanies the Driver in the bookmobile, and slowly their relationship deepens.

While the troupers stop to perform in the remote and isolated towns along the coast, the Driver meets with the head of each town’s established reading network and attends to any stray person who happens by in need of a book. And here we come to one of the deepest pleasures of Autumn Rounds: the portrayals of ordinary people, living in such remote settings, who long for a book’s comfort. I can’t think of another novel that so gently and effectively illustrates the pleasure and necessity of reading.

By my second reading of Poulin’s novel, I began to grow curious, as is my inclination, to check out the book’s various locations. Thanks to Google maps, I can now appreciate the town of Sept-Iles’ lovely view of the seven islands just outside its bay.

I was also able to discover that the novel’s unnamed restaurant on rue Puyjalon in the town of Baie-Comeau, where the Driver meets with his writer friend Jack, actually does have a name: “La P’tite Grenouille.” And thanks to the photo feature of Google Maps, I know what the small hidden stage in the back of this restaurant looks like.

But perhaps the most stunning moment of my map-mongering reading practice occurred when the Driver arrives at the town of Port-au-Persil and parks at the wharf overlooking the wide river:

It was only a bit of dock that projected modestly into the middle of a small bay, but the place was so restful that the Driver was always eager to go there. On his arrival he saw a painter who had set up his easel on the left, so he parked on the other side, as far from the artist as possible. He opened the two back doors to wait for the head of the network or any other reader.

When the fog was dispersing, he spied to the right of the wharf a sailboat and a few craft bobbing on the green water, and to the left, a landscape of pink rocks with a white frame house and a little chapel in the background: it was the landscape reproduced on the artist’s canvas.

With my iPad at the ready, I looked up Port-au-Persil. Beside the map was the usual collection of photos on a sidebar, but I never made it past the first photo, because there it was, the white clapboard house, and the small chapel beside it! And seen from the same angle described by the Driver!

At that moment, I felt I saw this scene directly through both the Driver’s eyes and the author Poulin’s eyes. If only I could turn my head and see the old man and his easel.

I also felt I’d somehow entered the novel in a new way and become part of an uncanny perceptual chain: the old artist painting his landscape, the Driver observing both the artwork and the setting, the author Poulin writing his description, a tourist’s website photo further commemorating the moment, and finally, my taking in each link of the chain, book in my hands.

And here perhaps is why I love playing matchmaker with book and map: it offers a hint of the layered multiverse that surrounds us: while living people walk through the familiar physical world, and imagined characters may roam through imaginary locations, there are also fictional characters who travel beside us in cities, towns and streets that are real; they become our own invisible companions, and we become theirs.


Do you have your own favorite pairing of book and map, whether fiction or nonfiction? If so, please feel free to scroll down to the very bottom of this webpage and leave a recommendation. I’d love to hone my map skills with a new book!


Would you like to learn more about Fernando Pessoa? My craft essay, “Countless Lives Inhabit Us” might interest you.

Like to read more about the connections between maps and literature? Here are two more craft essays you can check out: “Mapping the Invisible,” and “A Map of What?”

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March 6th, 2023 by admin