Magical realist novels are stories set within our own world, or something very recognizable to our own world, but with elements of dreams or magical events that are unexpected. For example: The children’s book Matilda by Roald Dahl is a magical realist story because it is set in an ordinary environment like her home and school but throughout the book Matilda soon realizes she can move things with her mind and you get hints of her abilities woven into the ordinary environment. Harry Potter is not Magical Realism, it is full blown fantasy, where magic is expected.
Magical realism as a genre that plays with the boundaries of our world but quirky things that don’t make sense are sprinkled within the story too. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the king of magical realism fiction and in the book 100 years of Solitude we read about the lives of different families in a small village where unexplained things occur: A beautiful quiet girl hanging out bed sheets suddenly floats up towards the sky never to be seen again, the sensual taste of chocolate makes the village priest levitate with ecstasy and a boy is born with a pigs tail. Even The Bible is magical realist! Burning bushes that speak to a man at the top of a mountain, Jesus turns water into wine and an angel visits Mary to tell her about the immaculate conception; all within the boundaries of ordinary life back in those times.
This is my absolute favourite genre because it likes to tease, like the act of making love there is a slow build up before a magical climax.
Here are seven more magical realist books I highly recommend.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
The Seas is a siren song, quickening the blood as only an encounter with a dangerous beauty can. Samantha Hunt’s unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator lives in a rambling, clutter-filled old house with her mother and grandfather. They live as north as north can be, near the sea, in an inescapable town drowning in alcohol and unspoken grief. Our young protagonist is convinced that she is a mermaid, is in love with Jude, a man wracked with trauma after a deployment to Iraq, and is grieving her father, who walked into the ocean years ago and never returned.
This is a book that knows it’s a book, obsessively unraveling language both in form and content. Like the grandfather slowly piecing together a dictionary with insufficient type of varied fonts, all of the characters in this book are spinning in orbit, their efforts never coming to fruition. Their senses are disrupted and their reality is twisted and re-molded until it becomes something both strangely dreamlike and achingly familiar.
The Seas is the darkest of fairy tales; Jude is “like a Snow White after years spent drinking in bars.” It’s a book of waiting, a book of stasis, a book that is always reaching for the color blue. This book wonders whether escape is possible.
Buy the book here: The Seas
The house of spirits by Isabel Allende
Following in the giant footsteps of Gabriel García Márquez, Allende lets rip with her own brand of el realismo mágico.
Strong female roles abound in this captivating story: from Rosa (who has the maritime grace of a mermaid) to Clara (the soothsayer, whose apocalyptic visions include exploding horses and cows that are hurled into the sea), and Tránsito Soto (the entrepreneurial prostitute who symbolizes success in the face of adversity).
This is a sweeping epic that spans three generations of Chilean women- Clara, Blanca, and Alba Del Valle Trueba- from post World War I up until the Pinochet coup which overthrew the Allende government (Isabel’s uncle) in 1973. The opus detailed their family saga in both good times and bad, reflecting on how the same mistakes repeated themselves through the generations. This is most evident as Allende uses the same name over again for all four women in the family: Nivea, Clara, Blanca, Alba. Each woman attempted to be as independent as her era allowed, yet falling for the society mores expected of an upper crust Chilean family. As the years pass, however, adhering to the higher class norms becomes harder as both family and society crumble around the Del Valle/Trueba clan.
Buy the book here: The House of Spirits
100 years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez was one of the first writers to use “magical realism,” a style of fantasy wherein the fantastic and the unbelievable are treated as everyday occurrences. While I’m sure it contributed to the modern genre of urban fantasy – which also mixes the fantastic with the real – magical realism doesn’t really go out of its way to point out the weirdness and the bizarrity. These things just happen. A girl floats off into the sky, a man lives far longer than he should, and these things are mentioned in passing as though they were perfectly normal.
In this case, Colonel Aureliano Buendia has seventeen illegitimate sons, all named Aureliano, by seventeen different women, and they all come to his house on the same day. Remedios the Beauty is a girl so beautiful that men just waste away in front of her, but she doesn’t even notice. The twins Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo may have, in fact, switched identities when they were children, but no one knows for sure – not even them. In the small town of Macondo, weird things happen all the time, and nobody really notices. Or if they do notice that, for example, the town’s patriarch has been living for the last twenty years tied to a chestnut tree, nobody thinks anything is at all unusual about it. This, of course, is a great example of Dream Logic – the weird seems normal to a dreamer, and you have no reason to question anything that’s happening around you.
Buy the book here: 100 Years of Solitude
The Drum Tower by Farnoosh Moshiri
Farnoosh Moshori’s novel The Drum Tower gives us a delicious taste of secrets, the delight of fear, the treasure of dreams, the sweetness of humor and glimpse of fictionalized history.
Written scrupulously with the fluidity of prose and scrutiny; Moshiri journeys into the depth of Iranian culture, through the core principles of Persian poetry, mythology, fairytales, folktales and legends, in order to write a story full of poignant mysteries. The result is a masterful portrayal of a family in Iran living during the times of social and political upheaval in 1979. Growing up with Persian poetry and literature she shapes her novels with the wealth of literary traditions as well as the richness of contemporary American novels.
Consisting of multiple plot strands, the essence of this multilayered novel is devoted to the analysis of a diluted aristocratic family shattered by the collapse of former dynasty and later ending the old tradition of monarchy by people’s uprising through 1978. To portray the effect of this critical period, Moshiri constructs to reveal the entanglement of her characters’ personal lives through family negligence, sexual and emotional abuse, madness, the insanity caused by revolution, the rise of religious dogmatists and ultimately war. She creates absurd images, settings and spaces to unveil the incongruity of her characters’ behaviors; their vulnerability and strength, peculiarity and intelligence, illusory and sense of reality. With all their absurdity, her characters surprisingly are amiable, pleasant and delightful to the readers!
Buy the book here: The Drum Tower
The Blue Girl by Laurie Foos
A bizarre yet enthralling novel that reads like a song.
One summer three mothers and their daughters are out at the lake when they see the blue girl drowning – they manage to save her and that act alone has a huge and irreversible effect on the each of the women. We follow the ins and outs of day to day life as these women struggle to cope with their own issues. The daughter who saved the blue girl is plagued by the memory and cannot sleep. Her friend is obsessed with knowing how and why the girl is blue. Whilst the three daughters push themselves through school each day we see how the mothers turn to another method of coping. They begin to cook moon pies and into these pies they pour their secrets. Once all of the children have gone to bed they travel out in the night to feed them to the blue girl. What will become of them?
The Blue Girl is told from the alternating perspectives of six narrators—three mothers and their daughters. Rather than feeling tangled, as the technique sometimes can, the different perspectives give us varied insight into the blue girl and the secrets she’s fed: a husband post-breakdown, a fragile son trapped in the mind of a child, and children sneaking off in the night. Though the oddity of baking secrets into moon pies may seem outlandish on the surface, it’s an incredibly compelling and compassionate vessel for a concept painfully familiar to many of us.
Buy the book here: The Blue Girl
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
This is a book of subtle magical realism meaning that it is set in the contemporary world but that magic exists almost as another force of nature, interwoven within the choices the characters make-almost serendipitous. The characters in this book don’t get involved with spells and potions but they live in a world where some people have power which affects others and where wishes can do real damage.
Gillian and Sally are brought up by their elderly guardian aunts who perform magic and divination for the inhabitants of their small town, mainly the women. The aunts are odd and almost frightening and some of the magic has lasting effects, not always for the good of all. The sisters reject their way of life and flee their home with one traveling widely and the other marrying. The sisters have little contact with each other or with their aunts until one sister commits an act which means that she needs help and the two of them and their daughters come together to realise their legacy.
Virtually all the magic done in this book is by women and concerns love or the consequences of love. The sisters live real lives in a recognizable world and they struggle to make a life for themselves in the shadow of this power. In the end, this book is about family, power, consequences and reconciliation. It is amusing and thoughtful in places and very different from many other novels about magic where it seems to solve all problems. Here, magic is a power which can be used or abused and its practitioners are ordinary women with their own lives and wishes.
Buy the book here: Practical Magic
Magical Realism plays on the absurd in real life scenarios, its Chinese whispers, its over exaggerated gossip, its lyrical story telling and folk tales in your local pub and it is the roots that shape myths and legends.
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