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40 unmissable magic realist reads - “It’s real-life, but not as we know it”

Joanne Owen

By Joanne Owen on 12th October 2020

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.

Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera

Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez Format: Paperback Release Date: 04/08/2016

Fifty-one years, nine months and four days have passed since Fermina Daza rebuffed hopeless romantic Florentino Ariza's impassioned advances and married Dr Juvenal Urbino instead. During that half-century, Flornetino has fallen into the arms of many delighted women, but has loved none but Fermina. Having sworn his eternal love to her, he lives for the day when he can court her again. When Fermina's husband is killed trying to retrieve his pet parrot from a mango tree, Florentino seizes his chance to declare his enduring love. But can young love find new life in the twilight of their lives?

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman Format: Paperback Release Date: 10/04/2014

It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed - within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang. THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac - as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly's wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark.

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American Gods

American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman Format: Paperback Release Date: 21/06/2011

Headline celebrates the 10-year publication anniversary of this extraordinary novel from a storytelling genius. After three years in prison, Shadow has done his time. But as the time until his release ticks away, he can feel a storm brewing. Two days before he gets out, his wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town. But the storm is about to break...

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Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children

Author: Salman Rushdie Format: Paperback Release Date: 03/01/2013

Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India's independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India's 1,000 other midnight's children, all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts. This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people-a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight's Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.

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The Snow Child

The Snow Child

Author: Eowyn Ivey Format: Hardback Release Date: 01/02/2012

Winner of the Specsavers National Book Awards 'International Author of the Year' 2012. A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on making a fresh start for themselves in a homestead 'at the world's edge' in the raw Alaskan wilderness. But as the days grow shorter, Jack is losing his battle to clear the land, and Mabel can no longer contain her grief for the baby she lost many years before. The evening the first snow falls, their mood unaccountably changes. In a moment of tenderness, the pair are surprised to find themselves building a snowman - or rather a snow girl - together. The next morning, all trace of her has disappeared, and Jack can't quite shake the notion that he glimpsed a small figure - a child? - running through the spruce trees in the dawn light. And how to explain the little but very human tracks Mabel finds at the edge of their property? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairytale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic - the story of a couple who take a child into their hearts, all the while knowing they can never truly call her their own.

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Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird

Author: Helen Oyeyemi Format: Paperback Release Date: 10/09/2015

Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.

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