Top Ten Magical Realism Novels
Magical Realism: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Magical realism is difficult to define (although I'll attempt it below) but it makes for some fantastic and fantastical novels. If you've never been that keen on the fantasy genre, thinking it's all elves and dragons and magic wands, you will be pleasantly surprised. And if you've never been able to bring yourself to read any stuffy literary novels, these gorgeous books could be your entrance into the art.
I don't pretend to be an expert on what makes a good book. I can only tell you what I enjoyed and this list is one of books with magical realism elements that I enjoyed.
I do need to make a confession here. I don't feel comfortable putting any books I haven't read on this list. And I haven't yet read any of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's, no doubt stunning, magical realism novels. They are the ones that most people think of when they think of this genre and I urge you to give them a try, and I will too, as soon as possible.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my list of the best magical realism novels.
What is Magical Realism?
Magical realism are books in which an element of the fantastic or supernatural is treated as normal by the author and usually by the characters as well in a book otherwise dominated by realism. The magical element is not explained, at least not definitively, although the characters might attempt to explain it to themselves. Generally, this is set in a relatively modern setting and there are only a few supernatural elements.
One common example of this is when a character lives much longer than a normal lifespan. Or perhaps animals are given more than usual perceptive or communicative abilities (like the panthers in Louis de Berniere's Latin American trilogy). Sometimes a person has a supernatural ability (Tita's ability to transfer her emotions to others through her cooking in Like Water for Chocolate or Henry's time travelling in The Time Traveller's Wife).
Magical realism needs to be set in a world that is highly realistic and identical to our own, except for these few magical elements. This is why it is so difficult to define properly, as it can easily tip over into urban fantasy, or science fiction.
One of the things I most enjoy about magical realism is that it speaks to the ancient belief in magic and spirits that runs through every human heart. It's not so hard to believe that some people could live much longer than others, because some people do live longer, and the average person has no concrete explanation for that. Why shouldn't some few, special people live for generations?
These books will also encourage you to live in wonder. If the characters don't find time travel any more wondrous than the birth of a child, or the blossoming of spring, perhaps we can also learn to see these miracles for what they truly are.
For a much better explanation and discussion of the definition, see the Wikipedia article on Magical Realism
Without further ado and in no particular order (OK, I put my favorite at the top, but otherwise in no particular order) my top ten list of magical realism novels.
Louis de Berniere's Latin America Trilogy
Mr de Bernieres is much better known for his novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but I adore his first trilogy, which is set in a small village in a fictional Latin American country. The books are very political and extremely funny. They blew me away the first time I read them and have remained favourites of mine for many years.
The first in the series is The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts and the others are Senor Vivo and the Cocoa Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman.
I have always thought it a shame that these books were not more widely read. Help to change that and start one today. You won't regret it.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
I just finished reading this beautiful book and it's haunting me in that really wonderful way. It's considered a classic for a reason.
If you are feeling a bit down, a bit lackluster perhaps, or you want some inspiration in life, love and the kitchen, this is the book for you. Following a woman and her love of a lifetime (and by that I mean the kitchen... the man is just the icing on the cake).
Be prepared to fall in love with Mexican food (you probably should have done that a long time ago!) as every chapter describes a delicious recipe that encapsulates the tone of the story.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I have heard this called one of the very first magical realism novels (although it's more like a short story). Whether you agree with that or not, this dark and sad story of a man turning into a cockroach is a classic for a reason.
If you have an e-reader, don't buy it, as you can get it free from Project Gutenberg (although if you feel generous you can support the Project instead!)
The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox
Perhaps right on the edge of what could be considered magical realism, The Vintner's Luck is so beautiful and strange that it's worth putting here anyway. A story about a man who meets an angel one night and then again, on the same night every year for the rest of his life.
It also has a sequel in The Angel's Cut.
Beware. This book will make you want to drink wine and listen for the sound of angel wings in the night.
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
You've probably heard of this one (all Johnny Depp fans certainly have!) but if you've never taken the time to read it, now is your chance.
A story about a woman who lights up a dreary town with her chocolate and a few small splashes of magic.
The way everything is described in this book is a kind of magic in itself, and will paint you vivid pictures you won't soon forget.
Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
A strange book that evokes a kind of alchemical logic, it will stretch your mind in unusual ways. Not the most relaxing book to read, but if you're tired of the saccharine sweetness of the domestic goddesses that tend to spring up in magical realism, the Dog Woman in Sexing the Cherry is a good remedy.
I'm not sure I'd read it again, but it kept me intrigued while I did.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
A strange and spine chilling book about a man with a sense of smell so great, he can work magic with it. His magic is not of the kind and cheery kind, however and his path to humanity is long.
This book does not shy away from the more disgusting smells you might imagine, but the descriptions of the perfume industry are enthralling and you will not be able to tear yourself away from the storyline.
This is a must-read for anyone who loves books.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Another very well known book, which some might argue is more of a science fiction than a magical realism. It does tip that way for me as well, but I thought I'd include it here anyway as a lot of people consider it to be magical realism and I consider it to be well worth the read (the movie was also excellent).
Henry is a time traveler, except he travels without wanting to and only for brief periods of time. This book follows his love story with Clare, who meets him for the first time when she is six and he is already married to her in the future. A beautiful and unique love story.
A beautiful and unique love story.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
I'm not sure if House of Leaves is often described as magical realism, as it more likely falls more neatly into the realm of horror. But, to me, it has many of the elements of magical realism. You have a house with dimensions greater on the inside than the outside. You have no real explanation for that in an otherwise normal world, although the characters attempt to explain it.
House of Leaves is one of the strangest books you'll ever read and it's definitely not for everyone. It follows a man who is reading the notes of a man who is making a documentary about a man who discovers that there is something strange about his house. Got that?
Some of the words in House of Leaves are different colors. Literally. Some of them are scrawled in the margins. There are puzzles and riddles and blatant misdirection and somehow it all adds up to a story. Read at your own risk.
Because I think everyone should at least try to give it a go.
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
Any of Tom Robbins' books might be described as magical realism, so I've just picked my favourite to spotlight here. Very funny, political and heart warming, this novel is another one which might be on the edge of what you'd consider true magical realism (because it hovers close to surrealism or even fantasy). Again, I'm pushing the boundaries because it's definitely worth reading, particularly if you've ever lamented about the lack of funny books in the world.
And it's about the apocalypse. Who doesn't want to read jokes about that?
Need a laugh? Of course you do. Read this book.
Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology
I have read many excellent short stories in the magical realism genre over the years. A good selection of them are contained in this anthology. It is an excellent introduction to this literary form.
I would also like to point out that several of the short stories contained in this anthology are in the public domain, so if you can't afford to buy it, you can still check them out from online public domain libraries.
What is your favorite magical realism novel?
If it isn't listed, please let us know in the comments.