10 Magical Realism Books to Make You Question What’s Real

Magical realism is a genre of literature that is often attributed to the Latin American part of the globe. This method of narration incorporates mythology or fantasy into realistic fiction in a very a matter-of-fact way.

Often said to be the outcome of postcolonial writing, these writings are often used to make sense of those who were conquered as well as the conquerors themselves. This style of writing is understood today to define a genre which treats fantastical things as not only possible but also as realistic. Here are ten of the best novels, which fall under this genre.

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

First Published: 1967

What It’s About:

A story told across generations, the plot follows the Buendia family that lives in the mythical town of Macondo. The story covers several generations of the family and discusses themes of war, love, lust, revolution, youth, poverty and senility. These are just a few themes of the book, each one of which is universal, making this a much-loved novel around the world. The story begins as the first generation of the Buendia family leave their home for a better life. While camping by a river, Jose Buendia has a dream which leads him to establish the city of Macondo by the riverside the very next day. The plot follows the story of seven generations of the Buendia family as they continue living in this town and their ultimate downfall.

Why You Should Read It:

The book is considered the finest book by Marquez and is a must-read for anyone looking to gain an insight into the beautiful world of magical realism.

Best Quote:

“There is always something left to love.”

9. The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass

First Published: 1959

What It’s About:

Oskar Matzerath is the narrator and protagonist of this story of a boy who, on his third birthday, decides he will now stop growing. Both of his parents have died, and the narrator is recalling past events from his life while in a mental institution. While on the outside Oskar looks like a small child, his inner being is that of an adult. He lives through the Second World War and later years, all the while retaining a prized toy tin drum which he received as a birthday present on his third birthday.

Why You Should Read It:

The novel is narrated in the first person and often in the third person, all the while making it unclear if the narrator is perhaps insane and therefore an unreliable voice of reason. Even though the plot is heavily focused on politics, the book falls under the magic realism genre since it has heavy doses of myth and allegory.

Best Quote:

“Even bad books are books and therefore sacred.”

8. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

First Published: 1988

What It’s About:

As a jet bound for London is bombed mid-flight by a terrorist, two Indian actors, each with very different personalities, fall towards the Earth. As they fall, both are transformed to symbolize good and evil forces. While Gibreel Farishta is a Bollywood superstand, Saladin Chamcha is an emigrant who works as a voice-over artist in England and has broken ties with the Indian part of his identity. The story is set in the modern world, but seamlessly merges the real with the magical.

Why You Should Read It:

To say this novel caused controversy would be an understatement. It led to Salman Rushdie receiving several death threats, including several assassination attempts and the Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated the book was indeed killed by one such attack. While the book is considered blasphemous by certain sects of the Islamic world, it is also considered to be a Rushdie’s most accomplished work and was a finalist for the 1988 Booker Prize.

Best Quote:

“You can’t judge an internal injury by the size of the hole.”

7. Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo

First Published: 1955

What It’s About:

Juan Preciado undertakes a mysterious journey to find his long-lost father, and the book blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The story talks about Pedro’s return to his mother’s hometown of Comala, where he has come to find his father. Here Juan finds a land that has been suffering with decay, ghosts and resembles a purgatory of sorts. The inhabitants of Comala are all dead and death is a prevalent theme in the plot. When Juan is shown as talking to an acquaintance, it is often not made clear whether that person is living or dead. As with most books that fall under the genre of magical realism, the story is told in a mix of first and third person.

Why You Should Read It:

This book is said to have had a major influence on the genre of magic realism and the beautifully told story has impacted writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

Best Quote:

“This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps.”

6. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

First Published: 1987

What It’s About:

The story takes place in the decade after the Civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation, when many slaves fled to Ohio during the rehabilitation of the American South. Sethe was born into slavery and escaped to Ohio. However, even after eighteen years, she still does not feel free. The title refers to a child that Sethe killed many years ago as a slave and the plot follows her life after she flees to Ohio and lives in a possibly haunted house. One day a young woman appears, claiming to be Beloved herself.

Why You Should Read It:

Written by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, Beloved is a must-read. Not only does it shed light on a horrific period that will remain a part of American history, but it is also a love story which incorporates elements of horror, loss, the supernatural and forgiveness with tons of powerful imagery.

Best Quote:

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

5. A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

First Published: 1982

What It’s About:

A mix of magic realism and a thriller, this is a captivating story of a twenty-something, chain-smoking advertising executive who one day receives a postcard of a sheep in a pastoral scene. The postcard is from his long lost friend and is included with a confessional letter. The advertising executive decides to publish the photo of the sheep as part of an advertisement for an insurance company. Little does he know that the image has sinister connotations, as he soon finds out by mysterious phone calls that threaten to end his career, and perhaps more. Thus begins the protagonist’s quest to find the sheep in the picture, taking him all over Japan, areas that are both real and mythological.

Why You Should Read It:

The story brings together a detective story with fantasy, philosophy, and mythology. The protagonist remains nameless and his journey is as much a spiritual one as it is a physical one. Read it to experience one of Murakami’s best works.

Best Quote:

“Sometimes I get real lonely sleeping with you.”

​4. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

First Published: 2009

What It’s About:

Quentin Coldwater is a teenager, who like most his age, doesn’t believe in magic. That is until he finds himself enrolled in one of the most secretive colleges of magic that exists in New York. While receiving a fantastic education in the art of modern sorcery, Quentin indulges in the usual activities of the college, having a wonderful time with his group of friends. Despite having a great time in college learning about magic, Quentin still doesn’t feel truly happy. All that changes after graduation, when, along with his friends, Quentin comes across a secret that sets them on a journey which turns out to be darker that they could ever imagine.

Why You Should Read It:

A coming of age tale, the book treats magic with all seriousness. The art of magic is not simply shown as something that’s done with the flick of a wand, but as a craft that takes time, patience and hard work to learn. Not only is it extremely difficult to learn the magic in the story, but the author brings together two very different elements: the disappointment with life that the protagonist suffers from and the magic that he deals with, to paint a realistic portrait of a troubled man.

Best Quote:

“I got my heart’s desire, and there my troubles began.”

3. The River King, by Alice Hoffman

First Published: 2000

What It’s About:

The story deals with a policeman, a student, and a teacher coming to terms with, and unearthing the truth behind a young man’s alleged suicide. The town of Haddan is rife with social divide and the students at the famous secondary school don’t mix with the town’s local inhabitants. However, once the body of a young man is discovered, a local policeman bridges the gap between the locals and the students.

Why You Should Read It:

This is a powerful book that brings together elements of magical realism with the secrets of a small town, family secrets and finding love. If you are looking for a perfect mix of mystery, magic found in the real world and finding beauty in the darkest corners, then look no further. Alice Hoffman’s writing is powerful and this novel is reminiscent of a story from the gothic era.

Best Quote:

“Margaret thought of all she knew for certain, that day would always follow night that love was never wasted nor was it lost.”

2. The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

First Published: 1991

What It’s About:

The narrator is called Azaro and is a spirit child, known as an abiku. The child lives between life and death as is seen in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. Even though he is born with a smile on his face, Azaro sees only a life of sadness and overwhelming tragedy ahead for himself. The boy is almost brought back to the land of the dead, before being resurrected again. Unfortunately, Azaro’s parents become destitute in their efforts to save their child. The story focuses on the struggle between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The living lands suffer from political struggles and also violence while the spiritual world of the dead is full of spirits that don’t have a care in the world.

Why You Should Read It:

Not only did this captivating story win the Booker Prize, but Ben Okri’s writing is an unparalleled example of excellence in the genre of magical realism.

Best Quote:

“It is more difficult to love than to die. It is not death that human beings are most afraid of, it is love.”

1. A Man Was Going Down The Road, by Otar Chiladze

First Published: 1973

What It’s About:

Beginning with the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden fleece, the story explores the consequences that the myth had on the kingdom of Colchis (the western part of ancient Georgia). The book is also an allegory of the destruction that took place in Russia when the Soviets seized ancient Georgia. The story is also the author’s interpretation of life as seen as a version of the ancient Anatolian story of Gilgamesh. Chiladze paints a picture of life in ancient Georgia, both political and domestic, a time when women and children would often pay the price for a hero’s obsessions.

Why You Should Read It:

If you want to read one of the more harder to digest, but highly accomplished novels in the genre of magical realism, Otar Chiladze’s work will be perfect for you. Greek mythology meets a study of society, this three-part story is a work of art in itself.

Best Quote:

“The word ‘love’ made Medea tremble so much that she found it hard to announce it even to herself. This little word, so harmless at first sight, comprised so much resistance and unhappiness, and implied such terrible visions, that Medea felt she was gasping for breath, drained of strength and dissolving in the air, becoming as light and insubstantial as air.”

Conclusion

Each of these ten novels is a shining example of the beautiful genre of magical realism that blends together reality with fantasy. After reading them you may not be so sure of what is real and what isn’t.

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