Magic Realism Brings Charm to Reading Fiction

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Who doesn’t love a little magic with their reading? I certainly do. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by magic realism, a genre that’s been around for decades but is getting more exposure of late.

Popularized in Latin-American fiction, magic realism combines surreal and fantastical elements in realistic settings. Fantasy slips into everyday life seemingly as if they belong there. But they don’t exist simply for the sake of entertainment. The magical elements are intended to question or emphasize real-world situations, whether they be societal, familial or emotional, among other things.

The works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende are frequently cited as key players in this genre. Marquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered a classic and a must-read for anyone who wants to explore this type of writing either as a reader or a writer.

What makes a story magic realism? Three key characteristics set it apart from other types of fiction:

  • The story is set in the real world, not in a make-believe setting.
  • The story contains magical and fantastical elements that have real-world implications, whether to question the political environment, society or familial environments.
  • The story is written as literary fiction but without traditional plot structure. The story may weave back and forth between the past, the present and the future.

Reading these types of stories requires an open mind. You have to be open to the nature of the fantastical and the surreal. Most important you need to suspend judgment about what is happening on the page.

I’ve read several of these stories over the past few years, from the light-hearted (Garden Spells) to the deeper exploration of a man’s identity (Song of Solomon). Some I liked very much; others not so much. But each one left me looking at the world a little differently. Isn’t that what writing is all about?

Are there any magic realism books you’ve read that you’d recommend? Share them in the comments.

Six magic realism titles I’ve read:

1.  Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. One of the first magic realism books I’ve read. This one reminds me a lot of Practical Magic with its two magical sisters. I love the garden setting, especially the apple tree that throws apples at people.

2.  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I loved this book by Morgenstern that pits two magicians against one another in a battle to the death – until they fall in love with one another. The magical creations at the circus are incredible.

3.  Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I have always loved Alice Hoffman’s writing, especially with the way she plays with plot lines and story structures. Historically, she has played with mystical characters and situations. PM is on the lighter side of her collection of works. It’s the first of a series about the Owens family who have been cursed in love for several hundred years.

4.  Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival. Charming story about the youngest daughter in a Mexican family who longs to be with her beloved Pedro, but can never have a relationship with him because of a family tradition in which the youngest must take care of her mother until she dies. Tita is only able to express herself when she cooks.

5.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The story follows the birth and life of Milkman Dead, who was born after a man jumps of a roof while trying to fly. It’s a strange journey for Milkman, who grows up stifled and alienated. His aunt Pilate, a bootlegger and a conjure woman, becomes a central figure in his life who helps him understand his family’s past.

6.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. When young Rose bites into her mother’s lemon cake, she begins to taste her mother’s emotions – that of sadness and longing. She learns to navigate life with her strange ability.  
Six magic realism novels on my reading list:

1.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When you talk about magic realism, Marquez’s book is considered a classic. It has set the standard that all other magic realism stories must live up to.

2.  House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Allende is on my list of must-read authors, and this title is considered a classic in the magic realism spectrum.

3.  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. This debut novel set in Alaska in the 1920s tells the story of a couple so desperate to have a child of their own that they create a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone, but in its place is a real little girl, wild and secretive.

4.  The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Imagine going to a library where one book tells the story of your current life, and all the other books describe your life as it could be if you had made different choices.

5. Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. An epic family saga set against the magic and atmosphere of the Virgin Islands in the early 1900s. Orphaned after a shipwreck, two sisters and their half-brother are faced with an uncertain future, but each possesses a particular magic that will either hurt them or save them.

6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Gaiman, so this title lands on my list. From Gaiman’s website, “This harrowing and bewitching tale of mystery and survival, and memory and magic, makes the impossible all too real.”