Let’s take a look at books set in Belgium! I recently spent a few days exploring the gorgeous cities of Ghent and Bruges, where I spent my time indulging in incredible food and taking in all the bookshops, I mean sights! These are the results of my hunt for some literature to accompany my travels. 🇧🇪
I most recently finished The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, which is set between Brussels and Paris. Similar to her bestselling book Girl With A Pearl Earring, it is a fictional novel revolving around a real piece of art. The Lady and the Unicorn is a series of six tapestries that were woven in Belgium around the year 1500. These gems can still be viewed today at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, which I’m now dying to visit!
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Books Set In Belgium: The Shortlist
If you’re short on time, some of the most notable mentions on this list include:
- The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst
- The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb
- The Melting by Lize Spit (I’m dying to find this title in English, dear readers please help!)
Books Set In Belgium
A Dog of Flanders
by Ouida (aka Marie Louise de la Ramée), 1872
A Dog of Flanders tells the moving story of Nello, a gentle boy with aspirations of becoming a painter, and Patrasche – his devoted Belgian work dog. The two, along with Nello’s grandfather, live in a little village near Antwerp where Nello’s idol, the artist Rubens, once worked.
by Georges Rodenbach, 1892
Hugues Viane is a widower who has turned to the melancholy, decaying city of Bruges as the ideal location in which to mourn his wife and as a backdrop for the narcissistic wanderings of his disturbed spirit. He becomes obsessed with a young dancer whom he believes is the double of his beloved wife, leading him to psychological torment and humiliation, culminating in a deranged murder.
The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin (Inspector Maigret #10)
by Georges Simenon, 1931
The city of Simenon’s youth comes to life in this disturbing novel set in Liège, book ten in the Inspector Maigret series. Maigret observes from a distance as two boys are accused of killing a rich foreigner in Liège. Their loyalty, which binds them together through their adventures, is put to the test, and seemingly irrelevant social differences threaten their friendship and their freedom.
by Willem Elsschot, 1933
Cheese is a gentle, satirical fable of capitalism and wealth. A clerk in Antwerp suddenly becomes the chief agent in Belgium and Luxembourg for Edam cheese and is saddled with 10,000 wheels of the red-rinded delight. But he has no idea how to run a business or how to sell his goods, and what’s more, he doesn’t even like cheese.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
by Georges Simenon, 1938
Kees Popinga is an average man, a solid citizen who might enjoy a game of chess in the evening. But one night, this model husband and devoted father discovers his boss is bankrupt and that his own carefully tended life is in ruins. Before, he had watched impassively as the trains swept by; now he catches the first one out of town and soon commits murder before the night is out. How reliable is even the most reliable man’s identity?
The Bridge of Years: A Novel
by May Sarton, 1946
May Sarton’s celebrated novel of family, philosophy, and survival, set between the two great wars that cleaved Europe in two. In the wake of the First World War, life for the Duchesnes goes on almost as it always has. Situated near a vegetable garden, an orchard, and rolling green pastures, their Belgian estate is one of the few that escaped dereliction in the difficult preceding years.
Chapel Road (De Kapellekensbaan #1)
by Louis Paul Boon, 1953
According to the author, Chapel Road is the book about the childhood of Ondine, about her brother Valeer-Traleer with his monstrous head wobbling through life this way and that. But the book is about a lot more than that. It is also the story of Louis Paul Boon, an author working on a novel entitled Chapel Road, surrounded by his colorful group of friends.
Note: The second book in the series Summer in Termuren, has even higher ratings.
The Blue Room
by Georges Simenon, 1960
Vain, womanising Tony and passionate, manipulative Andree met eight times in eleven months in the blue room at the Hotel des Voyageurs for afternoons of abandoned love. For Tony the conversation that last time was just the casual, almost banal, talk of lovers. But for Andree it was something else. And it led inevitably to an appalling double murder, and a nightmare, which Tony couldn’t escape.
The Abyss (L’Œuvre au noir)
by Marguerite Yourcenar, 1968
Born in Flanders, the illegitimate son of an Italian prelate, and reared in the household of his wealthy merchant uncle, Henry Justus Lire of Bruges, Zeno is destined for the Church, but he early abandons his theological studies in Louvain to seek for knowledge untrammeled by doctrine. Drawn to the subversive dynamism of medieval alchemy, he pursues that science host under the auspices of a high churchman in Ghent, and next with a learned jew of Leon, in Spain.
The Secret in the Old Lace (Nancy Drew #59)
by Carolyn Keene, 1980
Nancy Drew has entered a contest to solve an old mystery-the disappearance of a Flemish nobleman, a pair of lace cuffs, and a priceless treasure. In a thrilling story shadowed by a romance of the past, Nancy solves a mystery over a hundred years in the making.
The Sorrow of Belgium
by Hugo Claus, 1983
A classic novel in the tradition of The Tin Drum, The Sorrow of Belgium is a searing, scathingly funny portrait of a wartime Belgium and one boy’s coming of age-emotionally, sexually, and politically. Epic in scope, by turns hilarious and elegiac, The Sorrow of Belgium is the masterwork of one of the world’s greatest contemporary authors.
Niccolò Rising (The House of Niccolò, #1)
by Dorothy Dunnett, 1986
The time is 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. Niccolò Rising, Book One of the series, finds us in Bruges, 1460. Jousting is the genteel pastime, and successful merchants are, of necessity, polyglot.
Hygiene and the Assassin
by Amélie Nothomb, 1992
Prétextat Tach, Nobel Prize winner and one of the world’s most renowned novelists, has two months to live. He has been in seclusion for years, refusing interviews and public appearances. But as news of his impending death becomes public, intrepid journalists from around the globe flock to his home in pursuit of an interview with the elusive author. One after the other they discover that, far from being the literary luminary they imagined, Tach has become an obese misogynist, a petulant bigot, an embittered, disgusting madman. The world’s most famous author turns out to be the worst misanthrope imaginable.
The Folding Star
by Alan Hollinghurst, 1994
In self-imposed exile in an ancient Flemish city, an embittered 33-year-old language tutor, Edward Manners, falls in love with his alluring 17-year-old pupil, Luc Altidore. As Edward pursues the elusive object of his infatuation – and plunges into affairs with two other men – this book interweaves past and present, history and memory, into a tapestry of unfulfillable desire.
by Anita Shreve, 1995
In a Nazi-occupied Belgian village, Claire Daussois, the wife of a resistance worker, shelters a wounded American bomber pilot in a secret attic hideaway. As she nurses him back to health, Claire is drawn into an affair that seems strong enough to conquer all–until the brutal realities of war intrude, shattering every idea she ever had about love, trust, and betrayal.
The Square of Revenge (Inspector Van In #1)
by Pieter Aspe, 1995
The beautiful medieval architecture of Bruges belies the dark longings of her residents. When the wealthy and powerful Ludovic Degroof’s jewelry store is broken into, nothing is stolen, but the jewels have been dissolved in jars of aqua regia, an acid so strong it can even melt gold. In the empty safe is a scrap of paper on which a strange square has been drawn.
King Leopold’s Ghost
by Adam Hochschild, 1998
In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million – all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian.
Note: this novel takes place in the Congo.
by Erwin Mortier, 1999
The narrator is a ten year old boy who lives with his grandparents in a Flemish village. His grandmother guards the family dead with fierce determination, arranging and re-arranging their photographs in a special cabinet, talking to them and arguing with them. The cabinet is an extension of heaven, with its own purgatory and hell: their place in his grandmother’s favour is marked by their proximity to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among the Belgians
by Harry Pearson, 1999
Most British travel writers head south for a destination that is hot, exotic, dangerous or all three. Harry Pearson chose to head in the opposite direction for a country which is damp, safe and of legendary banality: Belgium. But can any nation whose most famous monument is a statue of a small boy urinating really be that dull?
The Book of Proper Names
by Amélie Nothomb, 2000
To have an extraordinary life, Lucette believes, one must have an extraordinary name. Horrified by the pedestrian names her husband chooses for their unborn child (Tanguy if it’s a boy, Joelle if it’s a girl), Lucette does the only honorable thing to save her baby from such an unexceptional destiny – she kills her spouse.
Note: This book is included as it was written by Amélie Nothomb, a Belgian novelist; the setting is not central.
In the Company of Angels
by N.M. Kelby, 2001
Scented by chocolate and haunted by war, this compelling novel of dark miracles and angelic visitations offers up a distinctly imaginative new voice in fiction. Marie Claire is a young French Jew in a Nazi-occupied Belgian town, cared for by her grandmother, who cultivates flowers. A shattering of glass, and Marie Claires village is in rubble.
by W. G. Sebald, 2001
Austerlitz, the internationally acclaimed masterpiece by “one of the most gripping writers imaginable”, is the story of a man’s search for the answer to his life’s central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, one Jacques Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, the fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, he follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before.
Note: This book travels around many locations, some of which are in Belgium.
Lovers on All Saints’ Day: Stories
by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, 2001
Lovers on All Saints’ Day is an emotional book that haunts, moves, and seduces. Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the brilliant novelist, now brings his keen eye and rich prose to the themes of love and memory in these seven powerful stories.
Note: These stories are mostly set in France and Belgium.
by Dimitri Verhulst, 2003
A comic novel on a very serious subject. Dimitri Verhulst, an investigative journalist, had himself locked up in the asylum-seekers center at Arendonk for several days for a Flemish magazine. He then wrote a magazine article, but the experience would not let go of him. He wrote this comic, unabashedly politically incorrect novel, which is told from the perspective of asylum-seeker Bipul Masli, a press photographer from Somalia.
The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracy Chevalier, 2003
Paris, 1490. A shrewd French nobleman commissions six lavish tapestries celebrating his rising status at Court. He hires the charismatic, arrogant, sublimely talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. Nicolas creates havoc among the women in the house—mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting—before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven.
Note: this novel alternates between settings in France and Belgium.
The Angel Maker
by Stefan Brijs, 2005
The village of Wolfheim is a quiet little place until the geneticist Dr. Victor Hoppe returns after an absence of nearly twenty years. The doctor brings with him his infant children-three identical boys all sharing a disturbing disfigurement. He keeps them hidden away until Charlotte, the woman who is hired to care for them, begins to suspect that the triplets-and the good doctor- aren’t quite what they seem.
Note: The village of Wolfheim is fictional, but located close to the three-country point where The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet.
by Dimitri Verhulst, 2006
Sobriety and moderation are alien concepts to the men in Dimmy’s family. Useless in all other respects, his three uncles have a rare talent for drinking, a flair for violence, and an unwavering commitment to the pub. And his father Pierre is no slouch either. Within hours of his son’s birth, Pierre plucks him from the maternity ward, props him on his bike, and takes him on an introductory tour of the village bars.
On Black Sisters Street
by Chika Unigwe, 2007
On Black Sisters Street tells the haunting story of four very different women who have left their African homeland for the riches of Europe – and who are thrown together by bad luck and big dreams into a sisterhood that will change their lives. Each night, Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce stand in the windows of Antwerp’s red-light district, promising to make men’s desires come true – if only for half an hour.
by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, 2008
In this improbable love story, Toussaint creates a character who is obsessed with himself: how he does things and all the ways he might have done them, how he thinks, why he thinks the way that he thinks, how he might do or think otherwise. What happens? He takes driving lessons, goes grocery shopping, spends endless hours with an adorable employee of the driving school he attends. And though he is aloof, though caught up in his own actions and in the movement of his own thoughts he somehow emerges as surprisingly insightful and also very funny.
In Bruges (Screenplay)
by Martin McDonagh, 2008
After a shooting in London goes hideously wrong, two hitmen, Ray and Ken, are sent to hide out in the strange, Gothic, medieval town of Bruges, Belgium, by their volatile and dangerous boss, Harry Waters. While awaiting instructions from him as to what to do next, the pair attempt to deal both with their feelings over the botched killing and their differing attitudes towards this curious, otherworldly place they’ve been dumped in (‘Bruges is a shithole.’ ‘Bruges is not a shithole’).
Note: this is the screenplay of the famous movie of the same name.
While the Gods Were Sleeping
by Erwin Mortier, 2008
While the Gods Were Sleeping is a novel about the magnitude and impact of the First World War, the recollections of which are recorded in the notebooks of the elderly Helena. The young Helena is sent to her uncle’s country house before the war, and from here she witnesses scenes of indescribable horror. But it is also where she meets Matthew again, a British Army photographer who she goes on to marry.
Speechless (De Wase Trilogie #3)
by Tom Lanoye, 2009
Tom Lanoye’s mother, an amateur actress, suffered a stroke and lost her ability to speak. With her voice, once so dear to her, gone, she deteriorated, slowly and inevitably. New attacks made her entirely dependent on help. As a grateful and moving homage he reconstructs her life in an abundance of language that used to be hers. We meet José as a flamboyant, domineering and controlling woman who, investing great effort in her family and their butcher’s shop, always strove for everyone’s respectability, reputation and well being, resorting from time to time to dramatic scenes and shrewd manipulation to get her way.
Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History
by Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell, 2010
On February 15, 2003, a group of thieves broke into an allegedly airtight vault in the international diamond capital of Antwerp, Belgium and made off with over $108 million dollars worth of diamonds and other valuables. They did so without tripping an alarm or injuring a single guard in the process. Although the crime was perfect, the getaway was not.
The Master of Bruges
by Terence Morgan, 2010
Master painter Hans Memling is without peer in the artistic world of fifteenth-century Bruges. But when he falls in love with the Princess, Marie, daughter of his powerful patron, the Duke of Burgundy, his life begins to unravel. Made reckless by his passion for Marie, Hans accepts an invitation to visit old allies in London. But there he will find himself plunged into the final stages of the War of the Roses and embroiled in one of the greatest political mysteries of all time.
by Teju Cole, 2011
Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency wanders aimlessly. But it is not only a physical landscape he covers; Julius crisscrosses social territory as well, encountering people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey – which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.
Note: Only a small portion of this novel is set in Brussels, most takes place in New York.
by Jonathan Coe, 2011
London, 1958: unassuming civil servant Thomas Foley is plucked from his desk at the Central Office of Information and sent on a six-month trip to Brussels. His task: to keep an eye on The Brittania, a brand new pub which will form the heart of the British presence at Expo 58 – the biggest World’s Fair of the century, and the first to be held since the Second World War.
by Peter Terrin, 2012
Emiel Steegman, an unknown writer with a handful of novels to his name, is due to have dinner with a group of Estonian colleagues but cancels at the last moment “due to a somewhat difficult time for the family”. A nasty feeling immediately comes over him: is he inviting trouble for his family in doing so?
War and Turpentine
by Stefan Hertmans, 2013
Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather gave him a couple of filled exercise books. Stories he’d heard as a child had led Hertmans to suspect that their contents might be disturbing, and for years he didn’t dare to open them. When he finally did, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the frontlines during the First World War and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.
Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land
by Alec Le Sueur, 2013
Until 1993, Alec had never been to Belgium, so it came as some surprise whenin August that year he found himself at the altar of a small church in Flanders, reciting wedding vows in Flemish. It was the start, for better or for worse, of a long relationship with this unassuming and much maligned little country. He decided to put worldwide opinion to the test: is Belgium really as boring as people say it is?
The Sage of Waterloo: A Tale
by Leona Francombe, 2015
The Sage of Waterloo is a playful retelling of a key turning point in human history and a slyly profound reflection on our place in the world. William is a white rabbit living at Hougoumont, the historic farm on the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Under the tutelage of his grandmother Old Lavender, William attunes himself to the echoes and ghosts of the battle, and through a series of adventures he comes to recognize how deeply what happened at Waterloo two hundred years before continues to reverberate.
by Lize Spit, 2015
1988, in the small Flemish village of Bovenmeer. Only three children are born that year, and only one of them is a girl, Eva. Together, the three children try to make the best of the situation, until they reach puberty. Then suddenly their relationships are altered. The boys devise cruel plans and it is up to the timid Eva if she wants to join them or betray their friendship. The option is no option.
Note: Though MacMillian have the rights to publish this novel in English, I cannot for the life of me find it. Dear readers, please help! The most I have found is this extract.
See reviews (for the Dutch edition)
by Annelies Verbeke, 2015
Alphonse, funny, observant, and imaginative, is a former musician who has left Brussels with his girlfriend Cat to live near her parents in the buttoned-up rural district of Westhoek. It has open fields, wide low skies, more World War I graves than almost anywhere else in Europe – and one of the highest suicide rates in the Western world. Alphonse starts a new life as a handyman.
Belgravia (Belgravia #1-11)
by Julian Fellowes, 2016
On the evening of 15 June 1815, the great and the good of British society have gathered in Brussels at what is to become one of the most tragic parties in history – the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. For this is the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and many of the handsome young men attending the ball will find themselves, the very next day, on the battlefield. For Sophia Trenchard, the young and beautiful daughter of Wellington’s chief supplier, this night will change everything.
What do you think of these books set in Belgium?
Do you know some great books set in Belgium that I have missed? Have you read many books set in Belgium? Are you planning a Belgium trip in the future? Have some travel tips for readers visiting Belgium? I’d love to hear about more about your travels and tips for books set in Belgium in the comments below!
Looking for more reading ideas?
If you’re looking for more books set around Europe, see some of these popular posts:
- Books Set in Italy: Italian Novels
- Books Set in Scotland: Scottish Novels
- Books Set in Spain: Spanish Novels
- Books Set in Greece: Greek Novels