The story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière’s imprisonment and multiple escape attempts would have made for an implausible novel—as a memoir, it is riveting. In the 1930s, Charrière was convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor in the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The book recounts his life in detail—the voyage to the colony, his friends and enemies, his escape attempts, adventures during his brief stints of freedom, solitary confinement, and the inhumane grind of daily life in a French prison. It’s no spoiler to say that he survived, but the lengths he went to in order to create a normal life are astounding, and made me hold my breath in anticipation.
Read if you enjoyed: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
West with the Night is the memoir of a truly unique life. Beryl Markham was born in England but raised from infancy in Kenya, where she became a pioneering racehorse trainer and pilot. The book, a record of her youth and early adulthood, was first published in 1942, and Ernest Hemingway said of it in a letter to another friend, “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade b—-, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” There are some questions about the veracity of her memoir, but frankly, who cares? It’s one of the most beautiful books you will ever read.
Read if you enjoyed: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen; Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Many fans of Alexandre Dumas, the author of the classics The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, know that Dumas was black. But few have heard of Georges, his novel about a black gentleman adventurer raised on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Georges comes from a wealthy, educated family, but he sees how their race puts his father at a disadvantage in society, and he is determined to change that. Among other things, the story features an interracial romance, an attempted slave rebellion, and pirates! Although it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of narrative brilliance of Dumas’s better known works, Georges deserves a place in the history of French literature.
Read if you enjoyed: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas