10 Books to Read Before Visiting Cambridge, England

Photo of Annie Hopkins
4 February 2018

Your heart is set on pretty Cambridge in England for your next trip. Home to one of the world’s finest educational establishments and with the beautiful River Cam flowing through its heart, this city has not only produced some of the UK’s top writing talent, but is also the idyllic setting for many acclaimed novels. Here’s 1o books to read before you head to Cambridge in England.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Told from two perspectives; that of an Italian Renaissance painter and that of a 16-year-old girl named George who becomes obsessed with his artwork. George is going through counselling to deal with the loss of her mother and trying her best to cope with her alcoholic father. Two versions of the novel were published, one which begins with George’s perspective and one which begins with the painter, Francesco’s side. An interesting exploration of the way a story’s arrangement can have an impact on the reader’s experience of its characters.

The Liar by Stephen Fry

Set partly at Cambridge University and written by one of the establishment’s most spiffingly British graduates, The Liar must at least be partially autobiographical, since its protagonist Adrian Healey is a student of the well-known institution too. The possibility of the whole thing being based on Fry’s life becomes less plausible once you get to the bit where he becomes a spy, but makes it no less of an enjoyable read.

Maurice by E. M. Forster

Set in the early 20th century, this is the story of a young gay man who falls in love at university, but whose committed partner of two years then chooses to deny their love and marry a woman. The tale then explores Maurice’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, including an attempt to ‘cure’ himself, before finding love again. The book was not released until after its author’s death, largely due to the negative attitudes towards homosexuality at the time it was written. It is said a note from E. M. Forster was found in the original manuscript which read: ‘Publishable.. But worth it?’. And the answer is categorically: Yes.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

From the Big Bang to black holes, as the tagline goes. This book is written by one of Cambridge’s cleverest residents, and provides a fascinating insight into the world of science for readers with no prior knowledge on the subject. Discussing concepts like space, time and the structure of the universe in basic, accessible language, Hawking brings elements of physics and other cosmological phenomena to the every day reader in a manner so straightforward, the book became a bestseller.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

This Sliding Doors style what-could-have-been novel takes us down the three potential pathways of a couple – Eva and Jim – who meet at university in 1958. Cycling along (in true Cambridge style), Eva hits a nail, falls off her bike and meets Jim with whom she quickly falls in love. In the second version she misses the nail and remains with her current boyfriend, David. In the third, she and Jim do meet, but things don’t go quite as smoothly. With a touch of One Day and some pleasant references to the city of Cambridge, The Versions of Us is a novel which plays with the ideas of fate, explores human relationships and examines the idea of our sense of self.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

With six stories interwoven, this novel jumps from the 19th century South Pacific to a post-apocalyptic future world. With each section of the book carrying a reference to the last, through a single character, along with a document, a film or some tradition which links back to the previous element of the story. These wildly different stories and settings; dystopian Korea, gangsters in present-day Britain, California 1975, and drags the reader on a complex whirlwind tour of each. Highly acclaimed and famously adapted into a 2012 movie starring Tom Hanks. With elements of the story set in sunny Cambridge, it’s certainly worth a read to give your visit a sci-fi twist.


Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Many of the dark and evocative poems contained in this collection of Plath’s poems would have been written during her time studying at Cambridge University. The book, which was published posthumously, contains of course the eponymous poem Ariel which explores the idea of being reborn, through the metaphor of a young woman on horseback. Quite different from Plath’s first published collection, Colossus, Ariel shows a darker side to Plath’s psyche. The collection, chosen by her one-time partner, the poet Ted Hughes, includes the poems Lady Lazarus and Daddy, which use the holocaust as metaphors for the writer’s oppression.

The House on the Strand by Daphne DuMaurier

What would it be like to time-travel in your mind and experience historic events, witnessing them without the power to influence of change them? Daphne DuMaurier had clearly been wondering the same thing when she wrote The House on the Strand, where a man named Dick Young reluctantly becomes the guinea pig for an old university friend to test a new drug. The hallucinations which ensue take him back to the 14th century where he is drawn to the lives of a couple Roger and Isolda, but when he tries to interact with them he’s brought painfully back to present-day reality. The novel follows Dick as he gradually becomes addicted to this past life. Though the novel is actually set in Cornwall, Dick met the drug’s creator at Cambridge University, and the pair frequently refer back to their student days. Perhaps not the closest Cambridge connection, but a brilliant read nonetheless.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

This detective novel tells three seemingly unconnected crime stories set against a backdrop of pretty Cambridge. A toddler disappears from a garden, a woman murders her husband with an axe and a solicitor’s daughter is killed with no apparent motive. Private investigator Jackson Brodie must solve these mysteries and find out how – and if – they are all connected. Well-received by reviewers, the book has several sequels though none of the are, unfortunately, set in Cambridge. So read this one!

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

It’s Christmas eve, 2024 and former soldier Hugh Stanton is summoned to Cambridge University by his former professor, who gives him the opportunity to travel back in time and change one moment in history, for the benefit of humankind. The pair decide that World War One was to blame for countless human catastrophes, so Hugh’s task is to travel back to 1914 and prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand with a single bullet. This satirical novel examines whether just one moment in time can affect an entire century, and whether just a simple change could truly stop the suffering.


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