11 Magical Realism Books To Remind You That The World Can Be Just As Fantastic As Your Dreams
Life is never more exciting than it is in that short period in your life when you believe that magic is real. Perhaps you believe in in Santa Claus, or maybe you grew up keeping an eye out on the skies for el chupacabra, or in the woods for baba yaga, or under your bed where some nameless monster lives and has a penchant for toes. Your toes, specifically. Those days may be over — step on a crack, and, well, nothing happens — but there's a way to keep magic alive in your life today.
Magical realism is a genre in art that blends fantastical elements with every day occurrences. Whereas fantasy goes on quests and saves the world, magical realism has a simple cup of tea with the vampire next door, goes on a stroll with a three-eyed cat that only speaks in riddles, and creates fantastic desserts that reveal your own inner desires... all in time for the church picnic. The stakes are lower, and yet they are so real, heartbreaking, and alive that one can't help but look at their own world in a slightly different way. Such is the gift of magical realism, and now I'm giving that gift to you.
Magical realism can help us remember those amazing superstitions and beliefs we had as children, and perhaps teach us how to bring that world into our current one. Pick up one of these 11 books, give it a read, and remember: their worlds may be different, but perhaps not as crazy as we think.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
With Satanic balls, vampire attacks, and mysterious storms, Bulgakov's version of Soviet Moscow is written with a strange, circus-like quality. The Master and Margarita is one of the earlier examples of the magical realism genre, finished in 1940, but not published until 1966 thanks to someone "Stalin" any attempts at cultural growth in the Soviet Union. (Sorry. I had to.) Following two separate stories, one in 1930s Moscow, the other in Jerusalem during Jesus' time, this story is perfect for those who enjoy large casts, vodka-swilling black cats, and any time the devil appears as a gentleman magician.
The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig
Claire "Neely" O'Neill possesses an uncanny ability to "taste" feelings, a talent that she uses to customize her cakes to each individual's "taste." When she moves back to her hometown after her husband's infidelity, she begins to taste a growing mystery in the town, and sets out to find it. Food is an incredibly big part of magical realism, as you will see later on this list, and The Cake Therapist uses it for a wild, wonderful story.
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Things are strange and whimsical in the fictional archipelago of St. Hauda's Land. Snowbound and full of strange creatures, it draws outsider Ida Maclaird, who, after an earlier visit, has slowly begun to transform into glass. She meets Midas Crook, a native photographer who decides to help her find a cure. Slowly, they fall in love as her condition gets worse. The Girl with Glass Feet is equal parts fairy tale and body horror (I would like to give you a heads up in advance about one particular sex scene), but it's also touching, tragic, and magical.
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
New York City has always held a certain level of literary fascination, but never has the Big Apple been more gloriously magical than it is in Winter's Tale . For those of you who know it as a movie starring Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey, the book is actually nothing like the film (and in the best way). The story begins in the early 1900s when middle-aged thief Peter Lake falls in love with young, consumptive Beverly Penn. The rest is complicated. Clocking in at almost 800 pages, and spanning over a century, it's epic in scope, featuring a flying horse, mystical swamp people living in Bayonne, New Jersey, and a gorgeous New York City trapped forever in a winter snow storm. This book may be daunting to read, but the world is beautiful.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Science fiction writer Gene Wolfe said, "magical realism is fantasy for people who speak Spanish," and that's mostly because of Gabriel García Márquez. This wildly popular novel follows the rise and fall of a family in the mythical Latin-American town of Macondo. The fantastical elements are small here, and almost inconsequential: a woman eats nothing but dirt, a girl is carried into the sky by her laundry, but the distinct feeling of an alternate world permeates García's books. Not only is this book magical, but it will also make you smarter.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Equal parts detective story, historical novel, and something completely unique, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle tells the tale of Toru Okada. a young man who descends into Tokyo's netherworld to locate his wife's missing cat. Murakami has no shortage of fans, but this book is the place to start for newcomers. His magical world is equal parts delightful and menacing, but will always welcome you in.
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, India became an independent nation, and Saleem Sinai was born with an extraordinary gift. Equal parts family saga and historical novel, Saleem tells the tale of his life, and also the life of the one thousand other children born at midnight. Each of the "midnight's children" possess a magical gift, from the ability to change gender at will, to the ability to use sorcery, to Saleem's own telepathy. The book is slow, intense, and tremendously worth it.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende's masterpiece is one of the most beloved Latin-American works of the 20th century. Following three generations of the Trueba family, beginning with the politically minded Esteban, a man who is only humanized by the life of his otherworldly wife Clara, this novel is full of love, thinly veiled depictions of Chilean politicians, and fun psychic powers. You don't need to be familiar with the politics of Chile, but it's probably an added bonus if you are.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
One of the greatest examples of magical realism and its relationship with food, Like Water for Chocolate is a tale told in monthly installments, and centers on poor, unloved, youngest daughter Tita, who has been forbidden to marry. Unfortunately, this does not stop her from falling desperately in love with Pedro, who ends up marrying Tita's older sister Rosaura so that he may stay close to the woman he truly loves. Channeling her emotions into the excellent food that she makes, Tita's cooking magically influences anyone who eats it, with surprising results. Also featuring recipes, this book is a heartwarming — and occasionally delicious — entry into the magical realism genre.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Not all magical realism needs to be whimsical, and Beloved by Toni Morrison is a prime example of that. This novel tells the unflinching tale of slavery, when former slave Sethe is haunted by the ghost of the nameless baby she lost so many years ago. Parts of the book are graphic and painful, but the story itself is too important to be ignored. Lyrical, poetic, and haunting, Beloved may be magical, but it's far from lighthearted.
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
When a small town librarian is struck by lightning and survives, she finds that she is freezing from the inside out. Baffled by this development, she searches for a man aptly named Lazarus Jones, who also has gone through the same ordeal and yet has become her perfect opposite, he's constantly burning, while she's frozen. The two embark on a love affair equal parts passionate and hurtful, and each of them are obsessed with hiding their two most important secrets: what changed them in the first place.