Blog – Posted on Thursday, May 30
Magical Realism 101: Definition and 15 Essential Classics
Magical realism is a literary style that weaves threads of fantasy into a depiction of everyday life. Its heroes aren’t fairies or sorcerers, they’re ordinary people — whose lives happen to butt up against the extraordinary.
It sounds simple enough: you take the mundane and make it just a little bit magical. It’s an enchanting formula first popularized by Latinx authors in the 20th century, and has since spread all over, from England to Japan. But despite magical realism’s reach, the term is surprisingly hard to nail down. You’ll hear scholars claim it’s not a genre but a sensibility, a way of looking at reality.
Confused? Don’t worry. This post will help you understand exactly what is magical realism — and introduce you to 15 of its most spellbinding reads.
3 essential elements of magical realism
First, let’s put the “real” in magical realism. Unlike fantasy, books written in this vein always take place in our world. You won’t find an alternate reality where schools for wizards are accessible by secret trains, and you can’t start out in the real world only to be whisked away to a land of enchantment. If it’s set in the past — not uncommon — you won’t encounter anything like a cabal of vampires pulling the strings behind the curtain of history.
This style has something in common with urban fantasy, which also tends to infuse familiar settings with a bit of strangeness. But there are two key differences. First, the cast: urban fantasy authors love their magical creatures, populating their cities with vampires, werewolves, and faeries. But magical realism is more likely to star run-of-the-mill students, mailmen, and secretaries.
Second, urban fantasy tends to systematically lay out how the magic works — letting you peek under the hood of, say, human-elf relations or the mechanics of spell-casting. But with magical realism, everything out of the ordinary just is.
In sum, authors working in this mode painstakingly draw up settings rich in the textures of ordinary life. Read one of their books, and you’ll find a mirror held up to the world you know — the workaday realm of butter knives and ticket stubs. This commitment to the real world makes magical realism a powerful tool for sociopolitical critique. Indeed, many of its most renowned works grapple with serious social ills, from colonialism to fascism to slavery.
Supernatural happenings — left unexplained
Magical realists set their work in a world that’s recognizably ours, but there’s always something uncanny afoot. Maybe you’ll meet a telepath, or see something inexplicable happen — a baby born with feathered wings, an egg hatching a ruby, or rain falling in a star-shaped pattern on the ground. Time, in particular, tends to be fluid and nonlinear: the narration skips ahead, premonitions abound, and the dead have a tendency to stick around.
The key thing is, this magic is never explained. The characters seem to take it for granted: they react to it emotionally instead of questioning how it works. And although it’s never subjected to the cold light of logic, it makes a kind of dream-like, internal sense.
In the end, magical realists are awake to the strangeness of so-called “ordinary life.” It draws up a subjective picture of reality, and while its supernatural flourishes don’t match up with how the world looks, they capture how it can feel.
Literary tone (and literary prestige)
Magical realism makes heavy use of details to ground readers in its slightly off-kilter settings. The prose tends to be finely wrought and lyrical, carrying the flavor of poetry. With this highbrow style, it reads like the lovechild of fantasy and lit fic. But supernatural elements notwithstanding, it is — in movie terms — not genre but prestige: more Oscar-bait arthouse flick than fantasy blockbuster shimmering with SFX.
Have you ever heard of the “sci-fi ghetto”? This tongue-in-cheek term refers to the dismissal of science fiction as something pulpy and unworthy of serious attention — not art, but a guilty pleasure. Fair or not, this reputation applies to fantasy novels as well.
Unlike fantasy, magical realism gets to mingle with lit fic. It shares shelf space with highbrow books, the kind debated in grad school seminars, and it’s featured in its share of scholarship too. Because of this reputation for artistic seriousness, authors writing magical realism have no problem netting nominations for major literary honors, from the Man Booker to the Nobel.
15 spellbinding magical realism books
With authors scattered all over the globe, magical realism is one of literature’s most diverse styles — and it’s been going strong since the mid-20th century. Maybe you’re a longtime fan looking to expand beyond the classics, or maybe you’re totally new to its charms. Either way, our list will help you find a positively enchanting read.
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1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
Considered a great writer’s greatest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude traces the fortune of the Buendía clan — the founding family of a fictional town in Márquez’s native Colombia — over, well, a hundred years. Hungry for adventure and attended by ghosts, the Buendías find themselves pulled along in the slipstream of Colombian history. As they contend with violence, political upheaval, and technological change, the family’s shifting fortunes mirror the country’s. Rich in characters and glittering with symbolism, this sprawling family drama has been hailed as the most influential Latin American novel of all time.
2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
A magical realist take on the legacies of British imperialism, Midnight’s Children follows Saleem Sinai, a young telepath with an animal-keen sense of smell. Born the exact moment India formally breaks away from British rule, he isn’t the only character blessed with mysterious abilities. In fact, the newly independent nation is full of powerful “Midnight Children” — every Indian child born between 12 and 1 am on Saleem’s birthday also enters life endowed with supernatural gifts. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, this novel draws an enchanted parallel between the political and the personal. The Sinai family grapples with imperialism’s messy aftermath, as Saleem’s twin, the Indian nation, also painfully comes of age.
3. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982)
First started as a letter to her dying grandfather, The House of the Spirits catapulted Chilean writer Isabel Allende into the literary stratosphere. She weaves a spellbinding tapestry in which three generations of the Trueba family come alive. Despite the clairvoyant powers of its matriarch, Clara, the family can’t escape the tragedy that seems to be its fate: not the great pains of revolution and dictatorial repression, nor the intimate sorrows of jealousy and hatred. In this novel, the Trueba women take center stage. Different as they are, they’re linked by their names — which, like Clara, all carry the meaning of “white” in a family tradition.
4. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984)
An aerialist who keeps her circus afloat with her dazzling escapades, Sophie Fevvers was born with the nubs of wings on her shoulder-blades. Unceremoniously dumped in a brothel as a baby, she spends her childhood working as a living statue — a role that picks up steam when puberty blesses her with a pair of full-feathered wings. That’s her story, anyway… but journalist Jack Walser isn’t buying it. Determined to piece together the truth of Sophie’s past, he follows her circus on its whirlwind tour from London to Siberia. A whimsical adventure with a feminist heart, Nights at the Circus is notable for splitting its magical realist sensibility between two characters: Jack is the real, Sophie is the magic, and together they’re pure charm.
5. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan (1986)
An East Asian take on a Latin American tradition, Red Sorghum offers magical realism with Chinese characteristics. Another myth-infused, politically charged, multigenerational tale, it cemented Mo Yan’s stellar reputation and essentially won him his Nobel Prize in Literature — making him the first mainland Chinese author to snag one. The novel follows a farming family in Shandong as they grow their home province’s staple crop — the titular red sorghum — and distill it into potent wine. But history comes to interrupt the harvest, forcing them to contend with the horrors of foreign aggression, factional infighting, and, finally, the Cultural Revolution.
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
From the mind of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, this classic of African-American literature offers heartbreak and illumination in equal measures. Inspired by a 19th-century newspaper article called “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child”, the novel follows Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman who crossed the border to the free state of Ohio. She took her young daughter Denver along on her flight to freedom, but there was another child she couldn’t save — a toddler she killed and buried under a tombstone reading, “Beloved.” Eighteen years after Sethe’s escape, her lost daughter somehow haunts her Cincinnati home, progressing from spiteful, baby antics to an adult ghostly rage. Written in taut, evocative prose, this novel conjures up the literal specter of slavery.
7. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (1989)
The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right? In this book, the old adage proves true for 15-year-old Tita de la Garza, a dab hand in the kitchen. Her neighbor Pedro, whom she’s loved from the time they met, falls for her sumptuous cooking. But the two teens can never be together — as the youngest of three sisters, Tita’s bound by family tradition to stay unmarried and care for her mother in her old age. Desperate to stay close to her, Pedro agrees to wed one of her sisters instead. In the resultant atmosphere of anguish and longing, Tita’s emotions seem to magically flavor her cooking, affecting the family members who swallow her love and bitterness along with every bite of her food. In keeping with this delicious motif, each chapter opens with a Mexican recipe.
8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
A zoo-keper’s son from Pondicherry, India, Piscine “Pi” Patel is a believer — Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. He baffles his pandit, priest, and imam when the three men bump into each other and figure out the boy has been triple-dipping. But Pi’s threefold faith is tested when this imaginative story finds himself shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific. Stranded on a lifeboat, he keeps company with a menagerie of animals from the family zoo: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan — and a tiger. Improbably named Richard Parker, the great feline forces Pi to tap into his ingenuity and inner strength. Martel’s lively prose sparkles with humor even as he tackles the big questions — freedom, God, and the subjectivity of truth — for a story as entertaining as it is inspiring.
9. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)
The king of Japanese magical realism takes on the Oedipus legend in Kafka on the Shore — approaching it with his typical blend of pop culture, dream-like happenstance, and fine-grained detail. The novel follows two characters whose fates seem mysteriously linked. Teenage runaway Kafka has absconded from home to escape an Oedipal curse. Aging Nakata, meanwhile, supports himself in his twilight years as a superpowered tracker of lost cats. Drawn together by seemingly random circumstances — including a shadowy murder — the two men explore a world peopled by librarians, talking felines, and seemingly immortal soldiers.
10. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (2010)
Another meditation on the emotional richness of food, Aimee Bender’s novel seems to flip the script on Like Water for Chocolate: instead of following a girl who flavors her cooking with feelings, we meet one who eats them. Rose Edelstein can taste the emotions in other people’s cooking, but this delicious power isn’t a gift — it’s a curse. It comes to her suddenly at age 9, when the savor of sorrow in her lemon cake forces her to confront the fact her seemingly happy mother is nothing of the sort. Rose’s magically discerning tongue robs her of the ability to trust the people she loves. Despite a premise that’s equal parts sobering and absurd, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is poignantly funny, offering heartbreak with an aftertaste of hope.
11. The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint by Edward Swift (2011)
When 82-year-old Josefina Epheron invites the president over for lunch, she’s cashing in on her decades’ worth of wealth and influence. But her ideal role isn’t socialite — it’s avenger. After decades of plotting, she’s finally enacting her plan for revenge against the family that destroyed her own and dragged her country into chaos. The daughter of immigrants to Latin America, Josefina is a living union of logic and faith — her father a scientist who comes to the jungle chasing medical breakthroughs, her mother a beloved aspiring saint. But the Epherons’ pocket of paradise is destroyed by the ruthless Serranos, whose meteoric political rise brings about their downfall. A gorgeous tribute to the great Latin American magical realists, Edward Swift's novel wears its influences on its sleeve.
12. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2013)
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Snow Child transposes a Russian folktale onto the Alaskan wilds. The characters are self-aware that they’re living out an older story. Indeed, aging homesteader Mabel writes her sister asking for an old Russian book from their childhood: she remembers reading about a childless couple miraculously getting a daughter made of ice and snow. Mabel and her husband Jack are just like that couple — haunted by their infertility and drifting apart, they shape a child out of snow one day only to find it gone the next. In its place comes a feral girl called Faina, golden-haired and attended by foxes. A mesmerizing spell of a story, The Snow Child has all the crystalline sharpness of an old-fashioned, un-Disneyfied fairy tale.
13. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)
Neil Gaiman has written everything from gritty, urban epics to wickedly funny takes on the apocalypse. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he dips into magical realism. The result reads like an elevated fairy tale, at once modern and timeless. The book follows a nameless narrator who returns, in middle age, to his childhood hometown for a funeral. The trip brings to mind his youthful friendship with his old neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, a strange girl who insisted that the little pond by her house was an ocean. Lettie’s since moved to Australia — or so our hero thinks. As he lingers around his childhood haunts, he comes to remember more and more about his past. It turns out that the idyllic veneer of his childhood hides secret both monstrous and magical.
14. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (2014)
Like so many other 16-year-olds, Ava Lavender wants to find her place in the world. But you might say she’s not like other girls. For one thing, all the women in her family seem cursed to fall in love with the worst possible people. For another, she was born with wings. Ava’s unusual appearance ignites the obsession of a pious young man who thinks she’s an angel, but she just wants to be a normal teen. First-time author Leslye Walton inscribes her story into an emotionally stirring family saga, rendered in dazzling prose. Though marketed as a YA novel, this isn’t a light, or even happy, read — it does have “sorrows” right in the title! Still, Ava’s resilience, and the elegance Walton brings to her craft, will move readers adult and teen alike.
15. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)
Four ordinary siblings find their lives changed forever when they encounter a strange woman possessed of even stranger powers. But this isn’t The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — it’s The Immortalists. Published in just 2018, this novel proves that magical realism is still going strong. Instead of World War II-era England, Chloe Benjamin transports readers to the New York City of the 1960s, where a psychic sets up shop offering to foretell the day of her clients’ deaths. The adolescent Golds — two brothers and two sisters — sneak out one day to see her. The morbid fortunes she lays out before them end up coloring their futures, making the Golds hypersensitive about every decision — and the passage of time. Is it prophecy, or the power of suggestion?
Want a little more magic in your life? Check out our list of the 100 best fantasy series!