Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like any doorway or hollowed-out tree could take you to Narnia or FernGully?
Magical realist books recapture that feeling, offering a portal to a world where mysticism seeps into everyday life.
In the simplest terms, magical realism is a style of worldbuilding in which fantastical elements are visibly present in, and inextricable from, everyday life. These surreal features — which include everything from the yellow butterflies that announce Mauricio Babilonia’s arrival in
One Hundred Years of Solitude to Abuela’s candle in Encanto — go unexplained. They simply are. The magical realist style originated in Latin America, but can also be found in the works of writers from Africa, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere.
Don’t worry if all of that sounds a little confusing. Whether your copies of
The House of the Spirits and One-Hundred Years of Solitude are well-worn, or you’re just now learning about the works of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, the books on the list below will serve you well.
Below, 20 magical realist books to read now.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article. 1 Violeta
A 100-year-old woman relays her life story — including the tragedy of her father’s death by suicide — to her curious nephew in Isabel Allende’s latest novel. To anyone familiar with Allende’s work, it will come as no surprise that
Violeta is a magical realist adventure. 2 What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
Nigerian citizens and expats take center stage in this debut collection of short fiction from Lesley Nneka Arimah. Here, children can be molded out of hair and guaranteed prosperity at the expense of their mothers’ happiness; a new field of mathematics allows the wealthy to shed their bad thoughts and feelings forever; and people come back from the dead to visit the living.
3 The House of Rust
A young Hadhrami girl goes to sea in search of her missing father in Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s
The House of Rust, a surreal coming-of-age tale. Aisha sets sail in a boat crafted from a fish’s skeleton, accompanied only by a talking cat. But that’s just the beginning of her adventure: She’ll have to face off against three sea monsters before she can rescue her dad. 4 The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina
Seven years ago, the Montoya family matriarch, Orquídea Divina, summoned her descendants home to claim their inheritances. Now, the family finds itself plagued by a mysterious, malevolent force. To find answers, four cousins — Rey, Marimar, Tatinelly, and Tatinelly’s young daughter, Rhiannon — must journey to Orquídea Divina’s birthplace.
5 Breath, Eyes, Memory
In Edwidge Danticat’s lauded debut, a 12-year-old girl leaves Haiti to live in New York with her estranged mother, Maxine — who may or may not be ready for their reunion. Maxine has spent years providing for her mother, sister, and daughter back home, but finds herself nearly undone when Sophie, who was conceived by rape, arrives in the city. A novel rich with hurt and love,
Breath, Eyes, Memory is a must-read. 6 Like Water for Chocolate
As the youngest of her mother’s three daughters, Tita is not fated to marry. Instead, according to family tradition, she must stay at home to care for her mother, Elena, in her old age. So when a suitor named Pedro asks for Elena’s permission to marry Tita, she offers him her eldest daughter, Rosaura, as a substitute. Wanting to be near Tita, Pedro accepts, and so begins a tragic love story, spun out across decades and many decadent meals.
7 Exit West Exit West follows Saeed and Nadia as they escape their war-torn country through a series of magical doors that transport them all over the world. Part portal fantasy, part migration treatise, Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel is a fascinating little novel that should not go overlooked. 8 The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston’s
The Woman Warrior contrasts family legends and Chinese folk history with the author’s own experiences growing up Chinese American in California. First published in 1976, Kingston’s hybrid memoir attempts to bridge a gap between the experiences of first-generation Chinese Americans and those of their immigrant parents, while simultaneously examining the atmospheric differences between rural China and the urban United States. 9 Signal to Noise
Signal to Noise follows Meche, a young woman who found a way to make magic out of music as a teenager in 1980s Mexico City. When she reconnects with an old friend more than 20 years later, Meche is pitched backward into her memories of bygone days, and begins to piece together what happened to her clique all those years ago. 10 Song of Solomon
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a key factor in Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize win,
Song of Solomon follows Macon Dead III, aka Milkman, as he attempts to reconstruct his family history from scraps of evidence. Born when his mother watched a man try to fly off a rooftop, Milkman’s feet are never quite on solid ground. 11 The Cat Who Saved Books
Bad news, book nerds: If you’re the kind of person who buys a lot of books but doesn’t read them, you might feel a little called out by this one. Sosuke Natsukawa’s
The Cat Who Saved Books centers on Rintaro, a high-school student who works at a used bookstore he inherited from his late grandfather. Just as he’s forced to shutter the shop, Rintaro meets a mysterious talking cat, Tiger, who’s intent on saving unread books from their negligent owners. 12 Gingerbread
Harriet Lee grew up in Druhástrana and brought her family’s gingerbread recipe with her when she moved to the UK. Now raising her young daughter, Perdita, in a London flat, Harriet spends her time baking and weaving stories of her past. But when Perdita begins to look closer at her mother’s history, including the tales of her enchanting childhood friend, she begins to see her mother’s story in a new light.
13 The Book of Form and Emptiness A Tale for the Time Being author Ruth Ozeki returned to bookstores in 2021 with The Book of Form and Emptiness, a heartbreaking novel about a 14-year-old boy who begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects in the wake of his father’s unexpected passing. Wishing to get away from the voices, Benny Oh spends his time at the local library, where he finds the Book — his Book — that will change his life. 14 The Rock Eaters
This short story collection from Dominican American author Brenda Peynado explores issues of race, religion, class, colonialism. In the title story, a generation who once used their magic to fly away from their birthplace return home with their children in tow. But when their children begin to exhibit the same capacity for flight, they react in a much different way than their parents did.
In the eponymous archipelago at the heart of Leone Ross’ novel, everyone has a cors: part magical ability, part destiny. Xavier’s cors gives him the ability to feed anyone in Popisho one perfect dish at just the right time. His childhood love, Anise, can heal anyone — except for those she loves the most. Then there’s the governor’s daughter, who has no evident cors at all...
16 The God of Small Things
From the author of
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness comes The God of Small Things, a story about a pair of young twins, Estha and Rahel, who see their family thrown into chaos after the arrival of their beautiful cousin, Sophie. 17 Gold Diggers
Anita’s mother came to the United States with a family secret: a magical recipe that siphons ambition out of stolen gold. In high school, Anita shared the recipe with her neighbor, Neil — a decision that ended in disaster. Now, 10 years later, Anita approaches Neil for his help with another gold heist, one that may just save her mother’s life.
18 The Island of Missing Trees
When war breaks out, two young Cypriot lovers — one Greek, one Turkish — escape to the UK, where they raise their daughter with no knowledge of the strife surrounding their relationship; only a fig tree, growing in the backyard, connects Ada to her family’s complicated past. After her mother dies, Ada and her father are left to grapple with their grief.
19 Blue-Skinned Gods
A young boy, born with blue skin and believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu, begins a soul-searching, decade-long journey to determine whether or not he believes in his own cosmic birthright. Fans of Sindu’s Stonewall- and Lambda-nominated 2017 novel,
Marriage of a Thousand Lies, will find much to love here, as will newcomers to her work. 20 Seasons in Hippoland
In the fictional African nation of Victoriana, where a propaganda machine controls the truth, a young woman spreads word of a magical bowl with healing powers. When the Emperor-for-Life — suffering from an illness he refuses to publicly acknowledge — hears of this bowl, he orders her to find it for him.
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