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A guide to magical realism

What is magical realism? From Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Haruki Murakami, get to know the genre, its key features, and must-read authors.

Kat Brown
Magical realism authors and books

Spiritual yet familiar, sensual yet political, historical yet atemporal – magical realism encompasses a rich and fascinating literary tradition, particularly among a wave of Latin-American writers in the 20th Century. Discover more about the fundamentals of magical realism, plus key authors and books from the genre, with our handy guide below.

What is magical realism?

The literary genre of magical realism brings fantastical elements to realistic, often humdrum, worlds and social structures, serving as a metaphor and a vehicle for underscoring their absurdity.

In her book Ordinary Enchantments, English and comparative literature professor Wendy B. Faris suggests five characteristics that underpin the genre: an element of magic that cannot be explained by natural law; a real-world setting; the reader is caught between different ideas of reality and events; conflicting realms that almost merge; and the depiction of time as both history and the timeless, thus disturbing our understanding of time, space, and identity.

Who coined the term "magical realism"?

In 1925, the German art critic Franz Roh used the phrase ‘Magischer Realismus’ to describe a new style of art that portrayed the magical nature of an otherwise ‘real’ world.

The term "magical realism" began to enter literary circles at a similar time – apparently independent of Roh's work – with Italian Futurist writer Massimo Bontempelli, who in turn influenced writers including Arturo Uslar Pietri and Alejo Carpentier. The genre was later adopted and developed by other Latin-American authors – notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and, thanks to well-translated English editions of their work swiftly entering the market, magical realism exploded into a global phenomenon that was aptly nicknamed El Boom.

There’s no room for earnestness in the literary equivalent of a fever dream; magical realism is hugely absorbing and terrific fun to read. The giddy combination of fantasy and reality also allowed political expression to flourish in a way that was not always possible in more traditional forms. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work captured the imagination of readers in the '60s and '70s, while Hollywood adaptations introduced him to new audiences in the 21st Century.

In the early 2000s, a newer generation of authors distanced themselves from the genre, declaring it too kitsch to be serious. But magical realism continues to prove catnip to readers and writers alike. Here are our picks of the best books to get you started with the genre.

Key examples of magical realism

The magical realism aspects of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful novel, which follows the lineage of a family in an isolated forest community, are best expressed in a scene where a character ascends to heaven while folding a bedsheet. Reading it is rather like trying to parse a Magic Eye picture; everything is real yet uncanny, often at the same time. Marquez was heavily inspired by his grandmother, a devout Catholic who told far-fetched stories with the insistence that they were real – and why not?

French-Russian-Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier preferred the descriptor of ‘the marvellous real’ for his 1949 novel The Kingdom of this World, which had a major influence on Garcia Marquez. The Lost Steps, published four years later, also has features that are echoed in Garcia Marquez's work: a land that seems to exist outside of history and time, where a dissatisfied man rejects modernity in search of a fresh start, in a journey and narrative that gets to the heart of the human condition.

Like many magical realism writers, Isabel Allende was a journalist with politics in her blood – in her case, quite literally. Her uncle was the former Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was ousted in a military coup in 1973. The House of the Spirits, her debut novel, is a sprawling family story that spans everything from deep romance to violent revolution. At its heart is the central character Clara del Valle, whose powers of telekinesis and clairvoyance help so many people but ultimately cannot protect them from wider forces at play.

This novel is a gorgeous, magical take on the Cinderella story by Mexican author and politician Laura Esquivel. As her parents’ youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden from getting married; family tradition instead dictates that she must take care of her mother until her death. Tita’s only outlet is cooking. She pours all her thwarted desire into her beautiful recipes, which backfires spectacularly when she falls in love with her neighbour, Pedro, who is seduced by her cooking but marries her sister.

In this novel and his later work The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie uses magical realism to both underline how ridiculous the world has become and explore post-colonial India. As Rushdie wrote in 1985, “The first thing you notice about [India] is that they believe in God, that the divine is a part of everyday life. If you employ realism – a rational, Western way of using language – to describe such a society, you are implicitly being critical of it.” For Rushdie, the tenets of magical realism allowed God to exist and be as real as the material world we inhabit.

When Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman, loses her child, she can only afford to have ‘Beloved’ engraved on the gravestone. Years later, Beloved’s ghost haunts the family home, growing to embody the collective memories of the Black community and their ancestry, allowing them to recall previously blocked memories and tell their own stories and history – rather than the narratives imparted on them by slave owners.

Joanne Harris brought a very practical magic into the kitchen of main character Vianne Rocher, a chocolatier and newcomer to the quaint French village of Lansquenet, to emphasise the value of tolerance over the kind of puritanical thinking that begets social hysteria. Vianne has the unique ability to divine the desires of her fellow villagers. This gift of hers, while extraordinary, only serves to underscore her more human qualities of kindness and understanding, which prove mystifying to the domineering village priest.

With a hero who shares a name with Franz Kafka, one of magical realism’s influential predecessors, you might think you know what to expect from Kafka on the Shore. Yet this dream-like novel, woven with alternate realities, a man who can talk to cats, fish falling from the sky, and a forest where people seem to never age, is a constant surprise. As viscerally sexual as it is alternately murderous and beautiful (the murder plots, it should be noted, extend to both humans and cats), this book is a riddle, the answer to which will differ from reader to reader.

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