I may have stumbled onto Magical Realism at some earlier point in my reading life, but the first book I can remember reading from this genre is Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells. As a psuedo-Southern girl–Texas falls on that fine line between the Deep South and the Southwest–I couldn’t resist the charm of the novel’s Southern setting and atmosphere. But what really captured me was the book’s unique style, the way elements of magic enlivened the otherwise realistic story in surprising ways. At that point, I didn’t have the literary term “Magical Realism” at hand. But this striking balance between the realistic and the magical kept me buying literally every book Allen has written since.
As you might guess, Magical Realism is something of a sister genre to Fantasy, sharing as they do a theme of, well, fantasy, But unlike Fantasy novels, whose magic occurs in unique worlds carefully invented by the author, Magical Realism novels have magic sprinkled throughout our own world, realistically-rendered. Compare, for instance, J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. The former is set in an extensively crafted world quite distinct from ours and possessed of its own language, geography, laws, races, possibilities. Because such a world is created purely for the purpose of telling a magical story, magic becomes its central element. That magic thus has a distinct shape and contour. It has systems, rules, laws, and communities built upon it. And it is very concrete. When you’re told in a fantasy novel that a wizard has cast a spell, you are meant to believe that a wizard has cast a spell.
Conversely, Chocolat has hints of magic flavoring an everyday setting: a small French town, no more special than any other town across the world. The only fantastical blip in an otherwise realistic setting is protagonist Vianne’s apparent ability to craft chocolates that have magical effects upon those who consume them.
Given this definition of Magical Realism, Urban Fantasy might appear to belong to this category. After all, don’t novels like Twilight or Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate take place in work-a-day settings? Isn’t that part of that genre’s thrill, the concept of magic existing in our seemingly banal world?
But where Urban Fantasy still has Fantasy’s distinct, literal magical elements–there is no doubt, for instance, that Meyer’s Edward is a vampire, that he comes from a community of vampires with distinct laws and culture–Magical Realism treats magic in a more ambiguous fashion. This produces what I consider the hallmark of Magical Realism: the possibility for the reader to choose between two equally valid interpretations of the text: A) magic really is occurring (i.e., Vianne truly does create chocolates with magical powers!) or B) magical descriptions are simply literary devices, used to heighten the communication of real events and emotions (i.e., Garden Spells‘ Claire doesn’t really leave “a smoldering brown imprint of her hand” on a door when upset; this is just a way to express her depth of feeling).
This combination of magic and ambiguity–paired with the fact that such books are usually pretty well-written–has made this genre one of my favorites. So in the grand tradition of summer reading lists, here’s a few novels I’d recommend if you’re looking to add some Magical Realism to your own list:
No.1 Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen: Seeing as this is the book that started it all, it’s only fair that it’s No.1 on my list. Set in a small southern town, this novel features joint-protagonists Claire Waverly and Sydney Waverly, sisters with a strange inheritance: a garden whose plants are rumored to have magical powers when consumed, and an apple tree whose fruit provides prophetic visions to eaters. Claire leads a lonely but successful life running a catering company popular with those hoping to gain magical effects by eating of the Waverly garden. But when rebellious, wander-lusting Sydney suddenly returns home, both sisters are forced to confront their respective demons: Claire, her fear of falling in love, and Sydney, the dark figure chasing her and her daughter. A sweet, lovely read, this book is best described as “charming” as it lures you in with winsome characters (including a protective, mischievous apple tree) and a beguiling magical atmosphere. The perfect beach read.
No.2 Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman: Featuring Sally and Gillian Owns, this is another tale of sisters and magical bequests. But the tone of the two novels couldn’t be more different. If Garden Spells tends more toward the magical, Practical Magic leans slightly toward magical expression as a literary device; at the close of Practical Magic, the reader really is left pondering: is the magic real? Is it not? (BTW, this ambiguity is only present in the book; the movie adaptation, though excellent, leaves little room for debate.) I’ve read it two or three times now, and come to both conclusions. Hoffman’s novel is also the darker of the two books. While nefarious characters figure in both novels, the abusive relationship featured in Practical Magic is more chilling and more prominent. Supernatural threat hangs heavy, as well. Spanning three generations and told in stream-of-consciousness that slips fluidly between different characters’ heads, Practical Magic has that family saga essence.
No.3 Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez: Because Magical Realism and Latin-American Literature are intimately associated, this list wouldn’t be complete without a few such titles. If you read my blog, you’ll know this García Márquez novel holds a special place in my heart, since my article on it was published earlier this year in the anthology, The Body: Subject & Subjected. Cholera follows Florentino Ariza as he patiently waits for the man who married his childhood sweetheart Fermina Daza to die so Florentino may reclaim her love. To fill the long decades over which he waits, he occupies himself with a staggering 622 love affairs! Funny and lyrical, ridiculous and poignant, this novel is low on dialogue and action but lush with beautiful imagery, vibrant Latino flavor, and bittersweet human foibles. Running throughout it all is Florentino’s love for Fermina, mystic and magical, almost pseudo-saintly in its exaggerated largess. Another story I’ve read several times, and I uncover something new with each pass.
No.4 A House in the Country, José Donoso: Another Latin-American novel, this is probably the strangest novel I’ve ever read, and definitely not one for the faint of heart. This is sooo not a beach read, though I’d recommend reading it in a well-lit room as a mental-health precaution. Murder and cannibalism, incest and conspiracy, this is Magical Realism at its darkest and cleverest. The novel follows the Ventura family in their annual summer retreat to their estate in the country (thus the title). But when the adults depart for a summer picnic and fail to return (even Time is manipulated in this novel, as what appears to the adults to be a day-long picnic is to the children years of abandonment), the children left behind (6 to 16 years of age) take matters into their own hands, with terrifying consequences. If your to-read list seems to you to be overly fluffy, this truly masterfully-crafted novel is a good counterbalance. But read at your own risk.
No.5 A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle: This Irish novel is tall-tale-esque in its unfolding of one boy’s fight for Irish freedom from Britain during the Irish War of Independence. Although Henry undoubtedly takes center stage, he is not the only character imbued with legendary proportions. The novel’s main female figure, Miss O’Shea, acquires one of my favorite nicknames of all time for her military prowess: Our Lady of the Machine Gun. As is true of so much Irish fiction, the novel often drifts into a dream-like state where the reader is thwarted in any attempt to suss out what is truly happening, what is magical, and what is purely exaggeration for effect. Through it all is gallows humor that miraculously manages to keep the novel playful without lessening the book’s grimmer moments. This book also contains the weirdest erotic scene I’ve ever read, taking place as it does in the basement of a post office as a battle rages above, a battle which periodically breaks into and influences the love-making going on below.
This list is one to which I could add much more. I’d happily recommend more Sarah Addison Allen titles, or Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton. But since I’m rather enjoying my Magical Realism read of the moment–All the Bird in the Sky–perhaps I’ll skip off to indulge.