You're Soaking In It: Books edition
April 10, 2020 11:33 AM   Subscribe

What novels are absolutely soaking in atmosphere? These are books that because of the fine details and vivid and deft writing really transport and immerse you in another time or place and pull you completely into the author's world.

I'll give one example. For me, the "Investigator Yashim" mystery series set in the Ottoman empire does this. The author, Jason Goodwin, is an historian who really knows this material, and the books are brimming with the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures of mid-19th century Istanbul, but — and this is important — not in a way that seems heavy-handed or merely ornamental.

Another example, though in a very different way, is Smilla's Sense of Snow. These are books that, while I may not later remember the distinct plot points of their (frankly rather labyrinthine and convoluted) mystery stories, their settings* are so vivid and sharp that I can see and feel the surroundings in memory long after I've turned the last page. What books (not necessarily mysteries) do that for you?

* Settings can be anything: a house, a ship, a forest, an island, a village, an office, school, library, imaginary land ...
posted by taz to Media & Arts (58 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
I feel this way about One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It takes place in a fictitious town in Columbia, and I always feel like I've become a part of the town after I've finished reading it.
posted by roadrunner9 at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

The first thing that comes to mind is Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books.
posted by dfan at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

This may not be exactly what you're looking for, but Ann Radcliffe's gothic novels — The Mysteries of Udolpho, for instance — are definitely soaking in atmosphere. To the point where it's detrimental in the opinion of some, but I loved it!

Palliser's The Quincunx and Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost are two modern historic novels that in my opinion really nail the scene (deep Victorian London and Enlightenment-era Oxford). Honestly I would also recommend the Thousand and One Nights, Burton translation. Tons of wonderful and strange detail. In that scene also Beckford's Vathek is highly fantastic (in all senses of the word).
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:54 AM on April 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguru builds a sense of place and a sense of the characters that is very immersive.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:59 AM on April 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

I really loved Sacred Games for just this reason - set in modernish Mumbai. The inner chapters tend to be flashbacks (e.g. to partition) and are also excellent.
posted by rdn at 12:04 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Proust is what you want--perhaps more of it than you actually want.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall books (Tudor England).

The first couple of Elena Ferrante's "Neapolitan" novels--the geographic scope opens up more in the last two.

Halldor Laxness's Independent People (turn of the twentieth century rural Iceland).

And, it's with trepidation that I make this suggestion, but it should be made: Donna Tartt's The Secret History (a small New England liberal-arts college in the 80s).
posted by praemunire at 12:08 PM on April 10, 2020 [11 favorites]

The book that popped into my head was TheShadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It is a book to savor.
posted by poppunkcat at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Tony Hillerman's Navajo mysteries.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:23 PM on April 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

It definitely takes time to get into, but In Search of Lost Time lives up to the hype.
posted by pinochiette at 12:23 PM on April 10, 2020

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. From Wikipedia -"The novel gives a speculative account of the Norse inhabitation of Greenland in the 14th and 15th centuries, written in the style of an Icelandic or Norse saga." I read it a long time ago but I remember it being immersive in terms not only of its detail and story but also because of the way it was written - as mentioned above, it's written in an archaic and stylised way that draws the reader in even further.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

The "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman has a ton of amazing world-building.
posted by honeybee413 at 12:28 PM on April 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Pachinko -- amazing book.
posted by caoimhe at 12:30 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters comes to mind for me. Great question!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:32 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Proust, if you can make the investment.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:38 PM on April 10, 2020

'English Music' by Peter Ackroyd is one of the more atmospheric books I can think of. First scene is set at a spiritualist meeting in rented hall, and the author really puts you right in the room with him.
posted by ovvl at 12:43 PM on April 10, 2020

Jim Dodge's _Stone Junction_ creates a real-feeling world of magical rebels and outlaws, full of flaws, and the world hangs with me 25 years after reading it, more than the fun plot. It may work especially well on someone my age [early 50s] who grew up on the fringe of the fringe in the US West.
posted by Glomar response at 12:45 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hilde by Nicola Griffith!
posted by jeszac at 12:58 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

China Miéville's Perdido Street Station.
posted by elgilito at 1:00 PM on April 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

Iain Pears' books (the standalone novels more than the Jonathan Argyll mystery series) are like this for me. Also Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark.
posted by mskyle at 1:00 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Number one for me will always be The Great Gatsby. The green light, the eyeglasses, sometimes I think I've seen it all personally.
posted by vivzan at 1:03 PM on April 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

I found Connie Willis' Doomsday Book incredibly atmospheric and immersive in the historical sections, but it may be a little too on-the-nose in a time of pandemic.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:08 PM on April 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

Milkman by Anna Burns. It's never explicitly stated that it's happening during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but the atmosphere and the narration leave no doubt.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:19 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels bring New Orleans and surrounding area very vividly to life.
posted by purplesludge at 1:21 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

...and if you want something fun, try Gideon the Ninth, it just drips atmosphere on every single page (in the best way)
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:21 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It's so atmospheric and the descriptions of life in Victorian times is captivating. I don't like historical fiction but I couldn't put it down.
posted by essexjan at 1:26 PM on April 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Strong second for Mervyn Peake.
posted by flabdablet at 1:27 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

And a strong recommendation for Joanne Harris's Chocolat series. And, of course, all of the Discworld novels; these can all be binge-read, one after the other, without the slightest risk of getting bored with that world. As can Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, so that's a strong second from me as well.
posted by flabdablet at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

God of Small Things. (based in India for most part. somehow the way she describes the rain or the sun made me feel like I was experiencing it)

The Tea Master and the Detective
A novella, but quite atmospheric (Vietnamese space mystery with fancy tea blends!)

Non fiction: Bio of Jane Digby. The author was given access by the family to letters and diaries previously not released because the author promised to not make Jane out to be some wanton harlot like all previous biographers have done. An absolutely engaging story about a woman who is my hero now. She was a British noblewoman who bucked all convention, had amazing adventures, and ended up marrying a Bedouin sheik and living in Damascus. It’s easily one of the best biographies I’ve ever read and full of rich detail from history and the personal papers of Jane and her contemporaries.
posted by affectionateborg at 1:48 PM on April 10, 2020

Given how many of the books mentioned above I've read and loved, I think I am picking up what you're putting down here, so let me suggest The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber.
posted by soren_lorensen at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Some of my all-time favorite books fall into this category:

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
The Living by Annie Dillard

And some recent reads that were nicely atmospheric:
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (but this is definitely not a book everyone would enjoy)
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

And if you're at all interested in children's books:
Moominpappa at Sea, Moominvalley in November and Moominland Midwinter by Tove Janssen
Ronia the Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
posted by Redstart at 2:07 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Rutledge series by Charles and Caroline Todd is immersive into the world near London after WW1. Read them in order. Very intriguing detective series that adds so much setting into the story without you knowing it.

A companion series is about a nurse, Bess, during the war. It's a bit more too good-to-be-true, but a good series.

Seconding Hillerman's Leaphorn & Chee Navajo series and the Essex Serpent.
posted by mightshould at 2:31 PM on April 10, 2020

Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love does this an absolute treat - you get really immersed in all these extremely eccentric toffs fire off amazing one-liners at each other and living in ramshackle country houses.

And from the complete opposite side of the class divide Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book I think about often, not the specific story so much as the way it captured the atmosphere of English working-class life at the start of the 20th century. Not a cheery read overall, obviously, but I was so surprised at how fresh and funny this book was, it wasn't a chore to read at all although it is like 800 pages long.
posted by Lluvia at 2:44 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Seconding Wolf Hall and The Quincunx for sure. They're ferociously well researched, but all the historical detail feels inherent in the world, not slapped on like a costume. (Especially the Mantel.)

A lot of the books that occur to me as fitting the bill are pretty violent. Whether that's because the violence/mystery made my experience of the worldbuilding more intense and memorable or because that's where my head is right now I'm not sure:

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf
...and especially, though perhaps an especially hard read at this catastrophic moment: Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
posted by miles per flower at 2:52 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Louise Penny has a long running mystery series that takes place in a small fictional town in Canada, Three Pines, that you learn more and more about as the series progresses. The people love food (and so do I) so there are really delightful bakery descriptions. One person is a painter and so you get a lot of visuals of their process. Lots of attention to detail without it feeling foofy. And she seems like a nice person.
posted by jessamyn at 3:44 PM on April 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

These rang my bell:
Ancient Evenings by Mailer
Aztec by Jennings
The Plague Dogs by Adams
Shogun by Clavell
posted by mule98J at 3:50 PM on April 10, 2020

Books by Pearl S. Buck always did that for me. I could visualize the surroundings and the houses and the gowns. It wasn't overbearing either, just highly descriptive. I don't have a particular favorite..mainly because I can't remember the one I love right now...but I've had that immersion feeling with most of her books.
posted by annieb at 3:56 PM on April 10, 2020

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart
Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan by Isabelle Allende (very different books despite the same author)
The Boatman's Daughter by Andy Davidson
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
posted by erst at 4:00 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

ORLANDO by Virginia Woolf
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:09 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding God of Small Things and Orlando, also Greenlanders and the style it is written in, which only breaks down twice in the whole tale.

Recommending Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier,
And the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian,
Also Dawn Wind by Rosemary Sutcliff, which is a children's /YA book but immensely powerful
posted by runincircles at 4:29 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. At a Dutch East India Trading Company outpost in Japan at the end of the 18th century, a trader falls in love with a Japanese midwife. Even though I can't remember every detail of the plot, it's the atmosphere that comes back to me. A really beautiful book.

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. On a doomed tropical island waiting depopulation, a local policeman assumes a heroic identity to protect a young boy. The descriptions of the island and its inhabitants should fit the bill.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:34 PM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Epic trilogy telling the life story of a woman in 14th century Norway, from girlhood to rebellious adolescence to marriage and childrearing and beyond. Very important to read the modern translation by Tiina Nunnally.
posted by littlecatfeet at 4:43 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. It’s the story of everyday life for six ordinary citizens in North Korea from childhood to adulthood, up until they realize that what they had been raised to believe about their country is a lie, and they make their escape to South Korea.

It’s non-fiction, but written like a novel; it’s so immersive and the details so vivid that while reading, I genuinely felt like I was right there in North Korea with the characters. When I stopped reading, it was like coming up for air.

I usually read fiction, but this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it has stuck with me ever since I read it almost 9 years ago.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:59 PM on April 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

The Golden Lotus (the link is just volume 1 of 2), or properly Jīn Píng Méi, which was written in Míng times but set in the last days of the Northern Sòng. Though the overall plot involves a lot of scandal, the bulk of it is everyday life in a well-off household in medieval China, mostly among the (anti)hero's wives. And it is bulky, but that's what gives it such a sense of place. (It has a reputation as an erotic novel, but it's absolutely not, except to Victorians; it has about as much sex as a typical 20th century novel.)

I also thought of Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is not such a great mystery but is a beautiful love letter to an all-female college at Oxford.
posted by zompist at 5:20 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Possible Captain Obvious suggestion but Moby Dick.
posted by less of course at 5:54 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think at this point every book person on mefi is probably tired of me saying Martha Wells! to every book rec question but. . . Martha Wells! Either the Raksura books or the Fall of Ile Rien books. I had such clear pictures in my head, it was almost unnerving. Edited to add, you might particularly like the Ile Rien books best.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:15 PM on April 10, 2020

Seconding both Orlando and the Wolf Hall books, the latter have so many sentences that almost fall out of the book into your mind like tangible things, they're so immersive it's almost like being in an altered state.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 10:49 PM on April 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See. On the Korean island of Jeju, the women dive for shellfish and other sea products. The novel follows the lives of two of the women for several decades, from about the 1930s to the 1970s or so. The descriptions of their lives, communities, and the forces of change they deal with are compellingly real. (Content notes: Depiction of a drowning; wartime atrocities.)
posted by Weftage at 5:56 AM on April 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Kabloona by Gontran De Poncins.
posted by gudrun at 7:55 AM on April 11, 2020

Anne of Green Gables! The books are full of vivid, gentle descriptions of places and nature. I find them simultaneously dreamy and atmospheric and immensely comforting.
posted by skycrashesdown at 9:21 AM on April 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Philip Pullman's Dark Matters (book 1). Red Rising Trilogy (book 1).
posted by sickinthehead at 9:32 AM on April 11, 2020

Can't vouch for the accuracy, but Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak mystery series have always transported me straight into the Alaskan Native village / national park milieu.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:45 AM on April 11, 2020

Oh The Shipping News by Proulx fits this bill! Forget the shitty movie version if you saw it. The book is amazing. Layers and layers of goodness.
posted by emjaybee at 10:42 AM on April 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, arguably the first detective story ever written.
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding. What England felt like before Victorian mores changed our view of Englishmen.
The Betrothed, by Italian Alessandro Manzoni. Feudal Europe was a dangerous place. His historical fiction makes me glad I missed it. Want to know what it felt like to live through the Bubonic Plague?
posted by storebought at 1:21 AM on April 12, 2020

The first three books in the Martin Cruz Smith Arkady Renko Soviet era detective novels. I wouldn't go much beyond the first three because they got too formulaic, but the three that are based before and up to the fall of the Soviet Union are deeply immersive. Gorky Park, Red Square and Polar Star at the names of the individual books.

Every have that experience where you are happily reading some novel and stop dead because the prose was so good that you couldn't help noticing it? And then you go back and read the paragraph or two paragraphs over slowly savouring the word choices and the imagery and structure before you submerge back again as if something was pulling you under? That happened to me while reading Polar Star. I remember books where that happened to me.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:15 AM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

then you go back and read the paragraph or two paragraphs over slowly savouring the word choices and the imagery and structure before you submerge back again as if something was pulling you under?

Titus Groan grabbed me by the shirtfront and told me in no uncertain terms that it would refuse to tell me wtf was going on at all unless I did that very thing with every paragraph. Reading Peake is like sitting down with a fine old red; take him quickly and you miss at least 90% of what's there to be savoured.
posted by flabdablet at 8:41 AM on April 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

In the Shadow of the Banyan did this for me. It is also an amazing story.

"Told from the tender perspective of a young girl who comes of age amid the Cambodian killing fields, this searing first novel—based on the author’s personal story—has been hailed by Little Bee author Chris Cleave as “a masterpiece…utterly heartbreaking and impossibly beautiful.”
posted by maxg94 at 10:29 AM on April 13, 2020

Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series immerse me in London like nothing else I've read. The first one, Full Dark House, is set largely in WWII, when the protagonists were young; most of the rest are more or less contemporary.

Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo (eight books, starting with Niccolo Rising) offers a similarly immersive sense of place and time, in this case 15th-century Europe. I find they demand concentration, and reward it richly. I'm sure the same is true of her Lymond Chronicles, but for no particularly good reason, I happen not to have read those.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:33 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Juliet Marilier's Sevenwaters trilogy is excellent for this. The first book is called Daughter of the Forest. It's a retelling of the Grimm fairytale about the sister who has to sew shirts from thorns to save her brothers who've been turned into swans, set in an absolutely dreamy Middle Ages magical Ireland.

2nding The Quincunx, Fingersmith (and all things Sarah Waters, actually), Gideon the Ninth, The Snow Child, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Moonstone.
posted by wintersonata9 at 8:00 AM on April 27, 2020

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