I was born in the late 1980s, so while I don’t remember much of them, I do feel a certain connection to the decade. I enjoy books set in the 1980s when I come across them, and I especially appreciate books set in the 1980s that focus on lesser-known (and/or written about) places and events. It’s so easy, when discussing historical fiction, to only focus on the events that either directly impacted you or directly shaped your understanding of the world. Of course, this is different for everyone. When I think of the 1980s, my mind immediately goes to Regan, the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., and queer activism. Someone else’s might go somewhere else entirely.
With this list of books set in the 1980s, I’ve tried to go in as many different directions as possible. You’ll find a fantastic novel about coming of age as a Black queer man in New York City during the AIDS crisis. You’ll also find books about the Uruguayan dictatorship, the Sri Lankan Civil War, a small Indigenous community in northern Canada, post-martial-law Taipei, and a Vietnamese refugee living in Texas—to name just a few. All of these books are set in the 1980s, but they focus on different lives and different catastrophes. They’re about people facing different kinds of challenges and finding hope and connection in different places. They certainly don’t represent the whole of a decade, but they do reflect just how much was going on all over the world.
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
This novel opens in 1977 and ends in the mid-2000s, but the bulk of it takes place in the 1980s. It’s about a group of queer Uruguayan women who rent an old shack in a remote village on the coast, a home that becomes a refuge for them during the years of the military dictatorship. As they struggle to live and love in a world that despises them, they find strength, humor, companionship, and courage in the family they build with each other.
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
This wacky, witchy read is full of 1980s nostalgia, from big hair to music. It’s set in Danvers, MA, in 1989 and follows the exploits of the Danvers High field hockey team as they attempt to spell-cast their way to a winning season. It’s tinged with magic and often hilarious, but it’s also a moving story about girlhood, friendship, and growing up.
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
It’s the summer of 1985, and teenager Benji Cooper is once again heading to Sag Harbor—an enclave in the Hamptons populated by elite Black families. He’s glad to leave his mostly all-white Manhattan prep school behind and to spend his days roaming around with his friends while their parents are back in the city. But the world of Sag Harbor is often just as confusing as the world he’s left behind. Sharp, funny, and full of Whitehead’s biting observation and deep understanding of human nature, this is a classic 1980s coming-of-age novel.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
Gay war photographer Maali Almeida wakes up dead in 1990 Colombo. He doesn’t know how he died, but he’s determined to find out—and to make sure the damning photos he took fall into the right hands. He sets out to find his boyfriend and his best friend before he has to move on from the in-between space he’s inhabiting. Somehow, this brilliant book manages to be absolutely brutal and also wildly funny and campy. It’s about the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War, and it’s about the things that people survive for—love, friendship, a perfect meal, a good joke.
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
This is one of my favorite novels ever. If you haven’t read anything by Eden Robinson, you’re in for a treat. It’s set in Kitamaat, a small, remote Haisla town on the Canadian coast north of Vancouver. When her brother goes missing on a fishing trip, teenager Lisamarie’s world is thrown into disarray. Robinson packs so much into this novel—it’s about grief, family, growing up in a small town, the natural world, addiction, Haisla culture and heritage, dreams, religion, memory. Robinson’s gorgeous, nonlinear storytelling captures the essence of both the characters and the place they call home.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie
First published in 1994, this lesbian coming-of-age novel has since become a queer classic. It follows a group of queer university students trying to understand themselves and the world around them—as they fall in and out of love, argue with each other, and create art. Most of the story unfolds through the eyes of Lazi, who’s in love with a much older woman. Though this is sometimes a difficult read, it’s a poignant exploration of gender, sexuality, loneliness, queer desire, and community dynamics.
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
In Mexico City in 1988, a trio of misfit best friends, helmed by fifteen-year-old Meche, discover they can do magic and cast spells—with the help of their favorite music via records. This realization changes their lives and ends up haunting them in ways they could never have anticipated. The story is partly set in 2009 when Meche returns to Mexico City for the first time in years to confront her past, but even so, this book is steeped in 1980s culture and music.
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lại
This YA novel follows a pair of siblings separated at the end of the Vietnam War. Hằng had hoped to travel with her little brother Linh to America, but he was taken from her at the airport. Now living in Texas, she’s desperate to reunite with him. When she finally does, he doesn’t remember anything about her, their family, or their homeland. This is a heartbreaking but hopeful story about a brother and sister trying to find their way back to each other in the midst of ongoing trauma.
My Government Means to Kill Me by Rasheed Newson
Written in the form of a fictional memoir, this book follows Trey Singleton, a young Black queer man who leaves his family in Indianapolis and arrives in New York City in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Struggling to make a life for himself, he finds community, meaning, and purpose when he gets involved with ACT UP. Newson writes beautifully about the messy intersections of personal and political awakening.
Looking for more books set in the 1980s? If you’re feeling nostalgic for the decade, check out these books that Rioter Jaime Herndon turns to when she’s feeling the same way. Steph Auteri has some great recs for books that bring the 1980s nostalgia as well.