Magical realism is a style of writing that gained cultural currency following the so-called Latin American Boom. Since then, the term has been applied to works by writers from all over the world in which seemingly realist narratives are infused with moments of magic. The reasons individual writers might have to do this vary, but they are often political, as articulating the psychodrama of modern reality becomes increasingly difficult to do within a purely realist mode of writing. Here, we will look at just 10 of some of the best magical realist novels – though there are still many more to be explored…
1. & 2. One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
If, by its very nature, magical realism is something of a contradiction in terms, that is because the two opposing terms resist one another, and so prevent either one of them from fully coming into fruition. Perhaps the author most commonly associated with magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, is a master of balancing the tension between the magical and the realistic in his work and infusing the reality of his narratives with an abiding sense of latent magic.
This fruitful tension is on full display in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). The novel tells the story of Florentino Ariza’s spurned love for Fermina Daza, who rejects him in order to marry Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Stricken with love, Florentino is sent by his mother to the doctor, who diagnoses him with cholera. This is just one instance of the non-realistic depiction of love as a disease colliding with the real world of medicine. Over the span of fifty-one years, nine months, and four days, Florentino has continued to love none but Fermina when, in a characteristically absurd twist of fate, Dr. Urbino dies while trying to retrieve his pet parrot from a mango tree – and Florentino seizes his chance.
The same is also true of his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, a multi-generational story of the Buendía family. The family’s patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, not only founds the fictional town of Macondo but, in a sense, creates it according to his own perceptions and preferences. The town becomes the site of various extraordinary events which shape the family’s history and, in turn, the novel itself. Thus the novel’s focus on Macondo allows García Márquez to seamlessly infuse the real with the magical.
3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
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Published in 1981, Salman Rushdie’s most celebrated novel Midnight’s Children went on to win both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize of the same year before going on to win the “Booker of Bookers” Prize and the best all-time prize winners in 1993 and 2008, respectively.
Midnight’s Children can be loosely described as an allegorical retelling of events surrounding (and including) the 1947 partition of India and, in turn, the birth of India and Pakistan as independent nation-states. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Saleem Sinai, is one of the eponymous midnight’s children, having been born at the precise moment when India was ratified as an independent country. Like the other children twinned at the hour of their birth with their country, Saleem has magical powers. He is telepathic and has a huge nose that is remarkably olfactorily sensitive and constantly drips. Saleem uses his telepathy to assemble the other midnight’s children, including Parvati and Shiva (who, in contrast with Saleem’s nose, has remarkably strong knees), Saleem’s great adversary.
Split into three books, the novel centers around Saleem, his family, and the 1,000 other midnight’s children, as the triumphs and tragedies of their lives are inextricably linked with those of their country. Charting partition and the end of British colonial rule in India, the Indo-Pakistani War, and the 1977 electoral defeat of Indira Gandhi, Midnight’s Children infuses the history of a nation with magic and myth.
4. & 5. Song of Solomon and Beloved by Toni Morrison
First published in 1987, Beloved is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the period following the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Drawing on the real-life experience of Margaret Garner, Beloved centers around Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman, and her daughter, Denver, who live at 124 Bluestone Road, which Sethe and her family believe to be haunted.
Paul D, one of the enslaved men from Sweet Home, the plantation where Sethe was enslaved, arrives at Sethe’s home and exorcises the ghost. Not long after this, however, a young woman called Beloved turns up. Could she be the spirit Paul D drove from the house? And could she be the reincarnation of Sethe’s two-year-old daughter, whom she killed rather than commit her to a life of slavery? By eschewing the restrictions of conventional realism, Morrison explores the psychological toll of slavery on her characters.
Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), tells the life story of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, a Black man living in segregated Michigan, from birth through to adulthood. Milkman’s birth is notable, not least because his mother’s labor is induced by the spectacle of Robert Smith falling to his death after jumping off a roof while trying to fly. This event inspires in Milkman a lifelong ambition to fly.
Desperate to escape his stifling family, Milkman journeys south in search of treasure. While his journey back home will bring violence, it will also give him the chance to learn how to fly. Song of Solomon is a multifaceted meditation on the life of a Black man in postbellum America, and so cannot be assigned to one literary genre alone. Yet Morrison draws on elements of magical realism to comment on the persistence of a haunted past, much like she does in Beloved.
6. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Written by Laura Esquivel, Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) was first published in Esquivel’s native Mexico in 1989 before being published in an English translation in 1992 – the same year that saw the release of the Mexican film adaptation of the novel.
The novel centers around the protagonist, Tita de la Garza, and her relationship with a young man named Pedro Muzquiz. Though the two are passionately in love with each other, they are kept apart by a Mexican tradition whereby the youngest daughter must remain unmarried and look after her mother until her death. Unable to wed as they wish, Pedro instead marries Tita’s eldest sister, Rosaura, as a means of staying close to his beloved.
Meanwhile, Tita – who was born in the kitchen of the family’s ranch house and was largely brought up by the ranch’s resident cook, Nacha – finds the only way she can express herself and all her pent-up emotions is through food. Thus, the novel is divided into twelve chapters, each of which includes a Mexican recipe that relates to Tita’s life. The second chapter, for example, focuses on the wedding cake Tita is forced to help Nacha make for Rosaura and Pedro’s nuptials. While making the cake, Tita cries into the batter, which causes everyone other than Tita to become violently ill after eating it.
The two lovers are kept separate for over two decades, with Tita enduring acts of violence and cruelty from her exceptionally domineering mother. When the two are finally united, however, their love story comes to a fittingly dramatic – and magical – end.
7. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
First published in 2017, Exit West focuses on Nadia and Saeed, a couple living in an unnamed, war-torn city. As they fall in love and the situation in their city becomes increasingly dire, doors are magically opening up around the world. These doors, representing migration and asylum routes, open onto corridors that lead passengers across the world. Left with little other choice, Nadia and Saeed open one of these doors to escape the civil war unfolding around them.
This door leads them to Mykonos, where there are already many other refugees. (This, in turn, lends the novel some verisimilitude within its magical realist framework, as many refugees hoping to enter EU territories head to the Greek islands via Turkey.)
From here, they open another door which takes them to London. Here, Nadia and Saeed settle in an unused luxury home along with many other refugees claiming squatter’s rights. However, as more and more refugees settle here, tensions between the refugees and some Londoners rise, leading to both random acts of violence and more systematic attacks. Eventually, the area of London occupied by refugees becomes known as “Dark London” as the electricity supply is reduced to the minimum and food becomes scarce. Eventually, the refugees are corralled into clearing land to make way for Halo London, a city settlement surrounding London itself, where they will be allowed to settle.
Though they initially apply themselves to this work – which could be aptly characterized as slave or indentured labor – Nadia convinces Saeed to accompany her through another door, this time leading them to Marin County, California. While they are more welcome here than anywhere they have been previously, the couple begins to amicably drift apart and must forge new paths on their own.
8. & 9. A Tale for the Time Being and The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being was originally published in 2013 and is split between two narrative voices and timeframes. Following the 2011 tsunami that devastated much of Japan, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the shores of British Columbia, where Ruth lives in her remote beach home.
Inside the lunchbox, Ruth discovers the diary of a girl called Nao, who is desperately lonely and alarmingly vulnerable following her family’s move from the United States to Tokyo. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, she becomes more and more invested in the sixteen-year-old girl’s story, and their two lives become magically, inextricably interlinked. Blending metafiction and magical realism, Ozeki crafts a novel emphasizing our shared humanity across space and time.
Ozeki’s most recent novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness (2021), proves that magical realism is still going strong. The story focuses on Benny Oh, who, after the devastating loss of his beloved father, begins to hear voices coming from inanimate objects and foodstuffs. When his mother develops a hoarding issue, the voices become cacophonous, and Benny seeks refuge in the public library. Here, he meets a homeless philosopher-poet, falls in love with a street performance artist, and even encounters his very own book (which, in turn, is The Book of Form and Emptiness itself), from which he learns many important life lessons. Like A Tale for the Time Being before it, The Book of Form and Emptiness blends metafiction, magical realism, and Zen Buddhism.
10. The Famished Road by Ben Okri
The first installment in a trilogy of books, The Famished Road won Ben Okri the 1991 Booker Prize for Fiction, making him the youngest recipient of the prize at the time at the age of just 32. The Famished Road, moreover, secured Okri’s place as one of the leading novelists of his generation – and deservedly so.
Centering on an abiku or spirit child named Azaro, The Famished Road blends magical realism with traditional Yoruba mythology, fusing the spirit world with the supposedly “real” world to create a blended, interconnected whole. The novel’s protagonist, Azaro, lives in the ghetto of an unnamed city in Africa, most widely believed to be in Nigeria. Life is a constant struggle for Azaro and his family, with a wide gulf separating the rich from the poor in their city.
As an abiku, Azaro exists in a liminal space between life and death. In spite of daily hardships and incessant calls from his fellow spirits to return to the kingdom of spirits, he refuses to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet out of love for his parents and is even born with a smile on his face. As his family grows poorer and poorer and political struggles rage on all around him, Azaro resolves to live and love in the non-spiritual world.
From its earliest incarnations in the first half of the twentieth century to award-winning contemporary novels, magical realism shows no signs of waning in popularity. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you are interested in reading more magical realism and are looking for somewhere to start, any of the novels mentioned above would be great examples of this literary style at its finest!