Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Carter’s Nights at the Circus - there’s no denying that fiction of a magic realist bent is among the finest of the modern era. But creating credible, impactful magic realism - the melding of real-world settings and characters with mythic, magical or fantastical elements, is no mean feat. Making magic believable - making magic make sense in a real world - requires a conjuror’s verve and skill.
Talking of which, many celebrated women writers have used the genre to conjure potent feminist-minded fiction, such as the mischievously rebellious stories and novellas of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and Angela Carter’s piercingly powerful vaudevillian tales. In these women’s hands, the mixing of magic with reality has a deliciously subversive effect. Then there’s the incomparable French writer Sylvie Germain, whose elegant, elemental novels are among my all-time favourites. Haunting siblings with gold-specked eyes. An abusive ogre avenged by an embodiment of Eurydice and Medusa. A spectral weeping woman shuffling the streets of Prague - the otherworldliness of Germain’s work combines with her real-world settings to create stories that get to the heart of the human condition, often exploring history too - Franco-Prussian conflicts, the Holocaust, the Algerian War.
The genre is also often used to cook-up piquant political allegories, as happened during its 1960s heyday. In this era, the Latin American region saw a surge in trailblazing magic realist literature written against a backdrop of very real political turmoil and volatility - One Hundred Years of Solitude was born from this. More recently, Neil Gaiman’s awe-inspiring American Gods uses magic realism to examine American identity through an epic story that sees neglected old gods vie with newer incarnations.
Another personal contemporary favourite is The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey in which the author remodels mermaid mythology to tell a magnificently unique love story while also exposing colonial abuses of the indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean. With its sex-obsessed sprite who sends a marriage spinning, Roffey’s novella The Tryst is also highly recommended, as is Robbie Arnott’s Tasmania-set Flames - a strange, enthralling story that reels with the raw, real experiences of its carnivalesque characters.
Featuring celebrated classics and unsung treasures, the books in this collection show how magic realist word-conjurors can reveal worldly truths with potent effect.