Magical Realism Books You Should Read

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Somewhere between the fantasy realms of Mordor and Narnia and the real world lies magical realism, a literary genre in which fantastical elements are incorporated into grounded and often mundane settings. Here are some of the books of the genre that you should add to your reading list.

Cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez / Amazon

Gabriel García Márquez did not invent it, but he helped popularize magic realism when his epic novel A hundred years of loneliness was published in 1967. The book tells the story of seven generations of a family living in the same village, and it tackles ambitious themes like the nature of reality. Half a century after its publication, A hundred years of loneliness is considered one of the best works of literature ever written – and it came to García Márquez as he was driving his family from Mexico City, their residence at the time, for a vacation in Acapulco. “It was so mature in me,” he later said, “that I could have dictated the first chapter, word by word, to a typist.”

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Cover of The Life of Pi.

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel / Amazon

Perhaps the best known example of magical realism in 21st century literature is Pi’s life. Yann Martel’s novel follows a boy stranded at sea for hundreds of days as he shares a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The surreal premise is part of the theme of the book, which invites readers to reflect on the subjectivity of reality. In an interview, Martel stated that he wanted an animal native to India, and that he considered both an elephant (which he considered “too comical”) and a rhinoceros (“I didn’t know how to make a herbivore survive in the Pacific”) before landing on a tiger.

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Red sorghum cover.

Red sorghum, Mo Yan / Amazon

Magical realism is also seen as a way to more accurately describe certain cultures where the literal style typical of Western literature falls short. In the Chinese novel red sorghum, published in 1986, author Mo Yan weaves folklore into a story about real events like the Second Sino-Japanese War. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the committee said, “Through a blend of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia. Márquez, finding at the same time a point of departure in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition. Although it incorporated fantastical elements, red sorghum was more realistic in some respects compared to much of the military fiction published in China at the time of its release. Mo Yan wrote: red sorghum in counterpoint to the propaganda he studied at university in the 1980s.

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Cover of Midnight's Children.

The Midnight Children, Salman Rushdie / Amazon

Salman Rushdie’s novel, which won the Booker Prize– tells the story of postcolonial India filtered through the personal lives of characters born when the country gained independence from Britain. All children born during this time acquired special gifts like telepathy, and the book superimposes these magical elements on real historical events. Rushdie looked to great works of literature when crafting the story, but he also drew inspiration from a surprising source: the larger-than-life storylines of Bollywood. As he wrote in The Guardian“because it was to be a Bombay novel, it was also to be rooted in movies, movies of the genre now called ‘Bollywood’, in which such calamities as babies switched at birth and given to bad mothers were daily occurrences .

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Cover of Beloved.

Beloved, Toni Morrison/Amazon

Pulitzer Prize-winning Toni Morrison’s novel was inspired by real events. While being pursued by her slavers in 1856, a woman named Margaret Garner killed her daughter and attempted to kill her other children to spare them a life of slavery. Although it is rooted in history, Beloved is steeped in mystical elements, with the murdered child of Sethe (the character based on Garner) living as a ghost. If it took you a while to get to the classic book, you’re in good company: Morrison admitted on The Colbert Report that she only read it in 2014, nearly 30 years after it was published.

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Cover of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

The Chronicle of Wind-up Birds, Haruki Murakami / Amazon

The chronicle of birds to go up deconstructs the typical crime novel as only Haruki Murakami can. Upon discovering that his cat – and later his wife – are missing, Toru Okada encounters a cast of unusual characters who exist on the border between dreams, memories and reality. The official English translation differs significantly from the original Japanese novel published in 1994 [PDF]; translator Jay Rubin cut about 61 pages, which included three whole chapters, to meet the publisher’s requirements.

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The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende.

The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende / Amazon

The first novel by Chilean author Isabel Allende in 1982 The house of spirits tells the story of a family, one member of which possesses clairvoyant abilities. The Wall Street Journal called the book “a seductive, sometimes magical tale… In its tumultuous tale of rebellion and love between three generations, it is an allegory in which any family should be able to recognize a little of themselves”. Before becoming a bestseller, The house of spirits origin as a letter. After learning that her grandfather was dying, “I started a letter to tell him that I remembered everything he had told me”, she told the Harvard Business Review. He died before he could read the message, but she continued to write it until it became a 500-page manuscript.

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Cover of The Ocean at the End of the Road.

The ocean at the end of the road, Neil Gaiman / Amazon

In 2013, British author Neil Gaiman wrote The ocean at the end of the road, a book that uses magical elements to explore the gap between childhood and adulthood. Returning home, the protagonist – an ordinary man from the real world – discovers extraordinary memories of his youth that he had forgotten. Although this is a standalone novel, The ocean at the end of the road can belong to a shared universe along with Gaiman’s other works: members of the Hempstock family from the book also appear in his novels Stardust and The Graveyard Book.

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Cover of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov / Amazon

In Bulgakov’s ambitious critique of his home country, Satan himself visits the Soviet Union, which practiced state atheism. Mixing political commentary with supernatural elements, The Master and Margarita is considered a masterpiece of social satire and magical realism. It was published posthumously many years after the author’s death in 1940, and ironically the first version was heavily edited by official censors.

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Cover of Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Like water for chocolate, Laura Esquivel/Amazon

Published in Mexico in 1989, Like water for chocolate features a main character who is able to convey his emotions to others through his cooking. This detail is more than just a plot device, as it may have been used in a more conventional fantasy book – author Laura Esquivel uses it to develop her protagonist and establish relationships between characters. According to Esquivel, the title of the novel sometimes changed depending on the language of the country where it was translated: In the Netherlands, it’s called Red roses and tortillasand in some Scandinavian countries it is called Hearts in Chile.

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