Magical realism is probably my favourite genre, I first discovered it in my early 20’s when reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “100 years of solitude” which was both torturous and tremendous to read- torture because it’s slow paced spanning over 3 generations and the language that describes the daily life of the family is very realist and at times tedious- just like real life and there have been times where I’ve lost my patience and had mild tantrums at the lack of action in that novel and then suddenly like a long awaited orgasm something mystical or odd happens which unfolds like a rare flower blooming in a mundane landscape. Needless to say 100 years of solitude is actually a favourite novel of mine- with divine hot chocolate that upon sipping, made the local priest levitate 4 inches off the ground, a girl hanging out bed sheets to dry, suddenly looks up at the sky and without saying a word, floats up to heaven never to be seen again, a boy is born with a pigs tail and it rained for 4 years, 11 months and 2 days in the epic tale. It is a unique literary experience, overwhelming in its virtuosity and magnificent in scope.
So what is magical realism? Magic realism is a technique which combines the real and the imaginary to create a fantastical, yet believable story, and also forces us to question the absurdity of our everyday lives, as if on a long, very normal and boring train journey to work and then suddenly your mind drifts into a seeping day dream. In the magical realism world, the people treat magical happenings as normal and part of every day life- a flying carpet is not awe-inspiring but perhaps something useful to society? And a beating heart made of diamonds could be sold on ebay? And a house is jealous of a girl as though it has emotions and a soul?
Magic realism is what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. So with that being said, here are 7 of my favourite magical realist novels you might fancy reading.
The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker
A stunning and lyrical novel about a young girl called Ari, her invisible seahorse, a turbulent childhood and her poetic, magical view of the world around her.
The language so poetic, so allusive, so enigmatic that for the first few pages I found myself agreeing with Ari’s teachers later in the book as he reads one of her stories: “I haven’t a clue what half of it means but I feel it, I see it, and on some level I understand it completely.”
The puzzlement clears soon and it becomes obvious that Ari is telling her story in the only way she can –sideways because the full on reality is too harsh.
The novel follows Ari from eight — when her father kills himself, her mother has a breakdown, and the sisters are doled out to various relatives — to sixteen when she has an opportunity to put into action the lessons life has taught her. During those eight years, Ari bounces between wonderful, nurturing situations and people — and other people and situations that will test all her resilience.
A very hauntingly, beautiful book, buy it here: The Clay Girl
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Lesley Walton
This book reminds me of traditional fairytales in their purest forms – before being sanitized or gentled for the presumed fragility of young minds. it positively drips with death and loss: people cutting out their own hearts, turning into birds, people suffering endlessly because of impossible loves.
and in the midst of all this, a girl is born with a pair of wings.
It is magical realism at the height of its potential. it is like Marquez in its chronicling of the relentless suffering of the different generations of a family, and it is esquivel in its food-as-magic: “Happy smiles were shared between the bride and groom, but it was the cake their guests remembered – the vanilla custard filling, the buttercream finish, the slight taste of raspberries that had surely been added to the batter. No one brought home any slices of leftover cake to place under their pillow, hoping to dream of their future mate; instead, the guests… ate the whole cake and then had dreams of eating it again. After this wedding unmarried women woke in the night with tears in their eyes, not because they were alone, but because there wasn’t any cake left.”
Reading this book felt like wrapping myself in a warm blanket on a misty, autumn day. The writing was beautiful. The characters were magical. The entire book felt like something you could sink into. This tale was not just made, it was threaded and crafted. I feel like it has burrowed inside of me.
Buy this dream-like book here: The strange and beautiful sorrows of Ava Lavender
“They say that a woman who practices magic is a witch, and that every witch derives her power from the earth. There was a great seer who advised that, should a man hold a witch in the air, he could then cut off her powers, thereby making her helpless. But such an attempt would have no effect on me. My strength came from water, my talents buoyed by the river. On the day I swam in the Nile and saw my fate in the ink blue depths, my mother told me that I would have powers of my own, as she did. But there was a warning she gave me as well: If I were ever to journey too far from the water, I would lose my power and my life. I must keep my head and not give in to desire, for desire is what is what causes women to drown.”
This is a historical-saga fictional novel with slices of magical realism woven softly into the narrative like silk. This book has been called Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece, her most ambitious and mesmerizing writing, and I surely agree. This is the richly told story of four strong and mysterious women from diverse paths who find themselves drawn together as sacred dovekeepers for the 900 Jews who held off the fierce Roman army for months in the Judean desert at the mountain fortress Masada. Hoffman explores themes on ancient magick, sexuality, freedom, gender, love, eroticism, daily life, family, war, childbirth, landscape, historical facts and much more all within this epic tombe!
Each word, each sentence and each paragraph felt precious and personal as though reading a diary. All 4 women had beautifully strong personalities and stories that interlinked with each other and it was such a breath of fresh air reading a novel where the secondary characters were male which allowed the female characters the opportunity to tell their tale and be deep and complex beings in their own right- love and relationships was a strong theme in the book but each woman had other important tasks to concentrate on than centering their livelihood around the men in their lives.
Seductive. captivating. factual and thick like desert air. This story is gorgeous.
Buy the book here: The Dovekeepers
Women without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur
Shahrnush Parsipur was – is – persecuted in Iran, where she’s from, for this book (among other things). Partly because she dares talk about, sex, virginity, female sexuality. Topics that are not to be mentioned ever.
‘Women Without Men’ does reference the title of the Hemingway work ‘Men Without Women’. I haven’t read the latter, but in the afterword to this book, it says it’s a book where ultimately a life without women isn’t particularly satisfying. The same (but in reverse) is the case of ‘Women Without Men’, in a way.
It consists of five stories of five vastly different women, who nonetheless have a lot in common. They’re all confined by their family and society to a very narrow way of life. They all have very little freedom of movement or thought, and each strive, in their own way, to break their captivity and be free to pursue a different way of life. It’s a mixture of harsh reality and magical-realism. The magical elements add depth and great character to the novel. The odd, fantastical elements are very poignant and quite stunning. It’s an odd novel, because it moves in so many ways, and the ending may seem somewhat disappointing or anticlimactic, but there’s a strength to it, an insistence that women are allowed to become their own people, to talk about sex and virginity and politics. Each character present a different story, each needing the same and separate things, each getting their own ending, and the result is a complex, strange and wondrous novel.
Buy the Book here: Women without Men
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
If there is a colour for the prose of Banana Yoshimoto, it is blue. Reading ‘Kitchen’ is like walking in the clear crisp air of a blue night in Tokyo. She works beautifully with surrealistic imagery, with artless simplicity. The images of the night, the houses in the streetlight, the colour of the sunset and the sky, the moonlight in the kitchen transpire again and again in the beautifully sparse writing until one breathes completely in the dreamlike quality of it. These images do not convey the sinister, furtive, darkness of night: it is but the beautiful melancholy of night where dreams and reality conflate.
The loneliness of the characters flows and merges with these images. How evocative a description of pain, loneliness, separation, and human mortality! Death and loss can truly be a binding force for people, drawing them closer, reshaping their sensitivities, in coming to terms with their loss. And there is the knowledge that no one can understand your loss except for someone who has been through a similar sadness. Yoshimoto’s characters, in their unusual ordinariness, adopt a number of contrivances for a liberation from their grief. Some change homes, some change their gender. They cook extravagant meals, find shelter in some secluded monastery with a waterfall or in the simple domesticity of the Kitchen. Some keep the grief hidden so that it doesn’t take the form of perceptible reality. Memories are shining and bright, and they live on but they also keep sucking their bearer away from the present. Moving on gets difficult. And it’s a pain in itself to come to a delivery where one learns to take care of a memory as a memory; something that has passed and doesn’t belong to the present.
Buy the book here: Kitchen
The beginning of the world in the middle of the night by Jen Campbell
This book is full of whimsical yet poignant story telling. The tone of the stories are unassuming, yet full of razor sharp observation that led me, as the reader, to powerful realizations. Jen Campbell blends elements of magical realism and authenticity to tell the story of the misunderstood. If you love fairy tales and twisted truths, that capture the beauty and flaws of humanity than you will enjoy this book.
the tales crafted by Jen in this collection are dark, fantastical, and addictive. Her style of writing is quite unique – very poetic and lyrical at times, which gives rise to some truly beautiful lines. Sometimes the stories tick along slowly, with great pauses which leave you creating your own conclusions from the spaces left by things that are not explicitly said; at others you feel as though the narrator is rushing to get their thoughts across, barely pausing for breath. Both styles swept me up and pulled me along willingly.
Jen’s love of fairytale shines through in these stories, used to great effect to add an ominous background to the main tales. She inserts parts of famous fairytales into her stories, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is simply another book of retold fairytales. Jen has instead weaved a world in which her characters have a love and knowledge of these stories similar to her own, and the tales they recount add depth to their personalities without taking over the story as a whole. Likewise, there are snippets of fact in her stories which I found fascinating. It never feels forced, it just comes across as our narrator wanting us to know these incredible things they have discovered, and to draw our own conclusions about the relevance to their own stories.
Buy the book here: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Fen by Daisy Johnson
This is a debut collection by a loosely related short stories. They are all set in the east part of England with its plains, canals, river estuaries and pylons distorting the horizontality of the place. Miss Johnston’s artistic treatment of the area, her imagination transforms it into weary dark, atmospheric setting. This is the place were young girls are coming of age or becoming mothers without having the time to grow. The border between people and animals are fluid as well. And one cannot easily escape. This sense of place is very strong feature of this collection.
These stories are gritty and dark like a damp, winters night. The writing is evocative wonderfully controlled weirdness. Characters are raw, honest and sometimes turn into animals. Despite these magical elements, the stories feel poignant, true and rooted in the earth. I found this collection disorienting, and quite brutal… yet very captivating and sensual as well, which is why I kept going back to it.
A surreal and slightly magical collection of short stories. Talking foxes, possessive houses, relationships, monsters and more. A treat of a collection.
Buy the book here: Fen
I hope you like my recommendations and if you can recommend any other Magical Realist novels, please let me know in the comments below. I fancy reading the work of Isabel Allende next, who is renowned for her fantastic Magical Realism!
Here are some other book reviews published on the blog:
Book review of Dream House by Catherine Armsden
Book review of Fen: A short story collect by Daisy Johnson
Book review of Rupi Kaur’s The Sun & her Flowers
Book Haul: Obscure Poetry Books I recommend
Book Haul: Empowering books for Wild women
Book review of Plum by Hollie McNish
Book review of The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwod-Hargrave
Book Haul: Picture books for little Yogis & ESL Learners
Review of The Rialto Poetry Magazine
Review of Candlestick Press Poetry Pamphlets
Book Review of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops By Jen Campbell
Book Review of Love poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky
Book Review on Kinfolk Magazine issues 11 & 12
Beautiful children’s books part one
Book Review on the children’s picture book ABC Dream by Kim Krans
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