Books

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 in 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 didn’t invent it, but he helped popularize magical realism when his epic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967. The book tells the story of seven generations of one family living in the same village, and it tackles ambitious themes like the nature of reality. Half a century after its publication, One Hundred Years of Solitude It is regarded as one of the best works of literature ever written—and it came to García Márquez while he was driving his family from Mexico City, their residence at the time, to a vacation in Acapulco. “It was so ripe in me,” he said later, “that I could have dictated the first chapter, word by word, to a typist.”

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Cover of Life of Pi.

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel / Amazon

Perhaps the best-known example of magical realism in literature from the 21st century is Life of Pi. Yann Martel’s novel follows a boy stranded at sea for hundreds of days while sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The surreal premise is part of the book’s theme, which calls on readers to reflect on the subjectivity of reality. In an interview, Martel said he wanted an animal native to India, and considered both an elephant (which he deems “too comic”) 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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Cover of Red Sorghum.

Red Sorghum, Mo Yan / Amazon

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

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Cover of Midnight's Children.

Midnight’s 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 the moment the country gained independence from Britain. All children born at this time gained special gifts like telepathy, and the book layers these magical elements with real historic events. Rushdie looked at great works of literature when crafting the story, but he also drew inspiration from a surprising source: the larger-than-life plot lines of Bollywood. As he wrote in The Guardian“because it was to be a novel of Bombay, it had to be rooted in the movies as well, movies of the kind now called ‘Bollywood,’ in which calamities such as babies exchanged at birth and given to the wrong mothers were everyday occurrences.”

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Cover of Beloved.

Beloved, Toni Morrison / Amazon

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel took inspiration from true events. While being pursued by her enslavers in 1856, a woman named Margaret Garner killed her daughter and attempted to kill her other children to spare them a life of enslavement. Though it’s rooted in history, Beloved is imbued with mystical elements, with Sethe’s (the character based on Garner) murdered child living on as a ghost. If it’s taken you a while to get to the classic book, you’re in good company: Morrison admitted on The Colbert Report that she didn’t read it until 2014, nearly 30 years after it was published.

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

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami / Amazon

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle deconstructs the typical mystery novel as only Haruki Murakami can. Amid discovering that his cat—and later his wife—have gone 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 demands.

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The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende.

The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende / Amazon

Chilean author Isabel Allende’s 1982 debut novel The House of the Spirits Tell the story of one family, a member of which possesses clairvoyant abilities. The Wall Street Journal called the book “an alluring, sometimes magical tale … ​​In its tumultuous story of rebellion and love among three generations, it is an allegory in which any family should be able to recognize a bit of itself.” Before it became a best-selling book, The House of the Spirits originated as a letter. After learning that her grandfather was dying, “I started a letter to tell him that I remembered everything he had ever told me,” she told the Harvard Business Review. He died before he could read the message, but she continued writing it until it evolved into a 500-page manuscript.

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Cover of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman / Amazon

In 2013, British author Neil Gaiman wrote The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book that uses magical elements to explore the divide between childhood and adulthood. Upon returning home, the protagonist—an ordinary man from the real world—uncovers extraordinary memories from his youth that he had forgotten. Though it’s a standalone novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane may belong in a shared universe 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 both social satire and magical realism. It was published posthumously many years after the author’s 1940 death, 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 impart her emotions onto others through her cooking. This detail is more than just a plot device, as it may have been employed in a more conventional fantasy book—author Laura Esquivel uses it to develop her protagonist and build relationships between the characters. According to Esquivel, the title of the novel sometimes changed depending on the language of the country where it had been translated: In the Netherlands, it’s called Red Roses and Tortillasand in some Scandinavian countries, it’s called Hearts in Chile.

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