I’m not going to get into the whole ‘what is magical realism?’ debate in any detail as I’ll be here until next year, so I will try to sum up this genre (sub-genre?) in a few words. Magical realism is actually tied to different cultures and their interaction with the west, as well as mythology and legend, however in our layman’s terms, a magical realism novel is any book that blends the mundane with the fantastic. Novels with magical realism elements are often set in the real world, full of boredom and everyday lives, but where something is off, something other-worldly has slipped through the cracks and engages with the mundane.
If my poor explanation hasn’t helped you with understanding the concept, I’m going to now list the 8 best magical realism novels. I need to point out, though, that these aren’t ranked in the order of how ‘good’ they are as novels, but how they best represent the genre (sub-genre???) of magical realism.
- The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)
First, we start off with a German novel that was published before the concept of magical realism first took off in the world of literature (even though it’s been present since the dawn of literature and the term was coined in 1925). The Tin Drum massively helped Grass win the Nobel Prize for Literature and it spawned a Palme d’Or and Oscar winning film in 1979. The novel revolves around the life of Oskar Matzerath who possesses a piercing shriek powerful enough to be used as a weapon. The novel follows him throughout his life and adventures, through World Wars, mental asylums, and love affairs, all with his beloved tin drum by his side. Although received lukewarmly on first publication, it is now heralded as a modern masterpiece and one of the best post-war novels of all time.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007)
I first read this novel a couple of years ago and instantly fell in love with it. I don’t think a novel has ever completely won me over and infiltrated me as quickly or as powerfully as Oscar Wao did. It tells the multi-generational tale of a family who originated in the Dominican Republic, before emigrating to New Jersey in the US. The novel follows three generations of the same family and their trials and tribulations with dictators, assassinations, gang violence, and suicide, all with a large sprinkling of post-modern references to the X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. I know what you’re thinking, ‘but that doesn’t sound very ‘magical realism’’, but that’s where you’re wrong as the multi-generational story is directly inspired by entries 1 and 2 on this list and the novel also features a ‘fukú’ (or curse, if you will) and a strange golden mongoose that comes to the characters in their time of need. If you only read one novel from this list, please make it this one.
- Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1928)
Virginia Woolf is a difficult writer to get into as, although her novels are often tiny, they are so packed with stream-of-consciousness and other modernism elements, that they can be a slog to get through. Orlando is probably her easiest read and definitely the most fun. Orlando tells the story of a young man who at the age of 30 suddenly becomes a woman who lives to be 300 years old without ageing physically. The novel is considered one of the definitive texts of feminist literature and is probably the best display of Virginia Woolf’s supreme genius. She is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, however is not given anywhere near the acclaim she deserves.
- The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
With a title like that, how could it be anything but a work of magical realism. Russian literature is flooded with war-torn love epics and class dramas played out during revolutions and in the confines of grand country-side houses … The Master and the Margarita is not that. Considered one of the best novels of the 20th Century (to be honest, all the novels on this list are), it details the imagined visitation of the Christian Devil to the Soviet Union. A very brave novel for its satirical view of the ardently atheistic Soviet Union, it is a key text in Eastern European magical realism.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
Considered by some to be the greatest American novel ever written, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a slave who escapes to the free state of Ohio with her baby Beloved. She is soon caught by a posse of slave hunters and she murders her baby rather than see it raised on a plantation. Years later an adult ‘Beloved’ returns to Sethe’s home and begins to haunt her and her youngest daughter Denver. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Much of Morrison’s work has elements of magical realism, but Beloved is so brutal and heart-breakingly realised, that it will haunt the minds of every reader who encounters it and it will be remembered for many centuries hereafter.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1994-1995)
This is considered Murakami’s best work by many critics and fans and is the text that really helped him become the global literary superstar he is today … much to his dismay. I could have put any of his novels on this list (with the exception of Norwegian Wood and Hear the Wind Sing) as they all display elements of magical realism, however it is probably most prominent in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, but seeing as I’ve already written about Kafka, I thought I’d give Wind-Up Bird some love. The novel follows Toru Okada after the unexplained disappearance of first his cat, and then his wife. Toru floats through the rest of the novel searching for them whilst sitting at the bottom of a well and being visited by dream prostitutes. It’s Murakami at his surreal best and announced to the world that a new name in Japanese literature was ready to blow our collective socks off.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
Yes, here I go talking about Salman Rushdie again, but seeing as this is one of my all-time favourite novels, how could I have not included it? As with Murakami, any of Rushdie’s works could have fitted on this list, however I settled for Midnight’s Children, even if The Satanic Verses is better suited to the list, if I’m honest. Considered one of the best novels of all time, it details the events leading up to and after the independence of India and the partition into the Dominion of Pakistan and modern-day India. In the novel, any child born during the first hour of independence is granted special powers (with those being born closer to midnight having stronger powers). Our protagonist and narrator, was born as the clock struck midnight and is considered the most powerful. The novel follows three generations of the same family (like with Oscar Wao) and we journey with our protagonist, Saleem Sinai, as he makes his away across a divided and war-torn nation, meeting terrifying dictators and homeless witches with magic baskets. An exquisite novel.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
One Hundred Years of Solitude is probably the defining work of magical realism and has inspired countless others to imitate its style (most famously with Mr. Rushdie in every novel he has ever written, post Grimus). Thanks mainly to this novel, Latin America is considered the home of magical realism and this book is as fine an example of it as you will find. The novel is a kaleidoscopic menagerie from one of the world’s most gifted novelists. The book details seven generations in the Columbian Buendía family and follows them from the founding of their town of Macondo and it’s rise and fall. The novel features ghosts, magic blood trails, devouring ant swarms, and so much more; it is the prime example of magical realism for its blending of myth and history, where the supernatural elements are shrugged off as normal and the more natural elements are gazed upon with wonder. As with a couple of the other novels on this list, One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered one of the greatest novels ever written.
If you were interested in an alternate ranking, where I rank the books as ‘novels’ instead of ‘magical realism novels’, then it would be something like this:
- The Tin Drum
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
- The Master and the Margarita
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Midnight’s Children
If you feel I’ve missed off a key text or want to discuss one of the entries, then come on over to Twitter @MugwumpBlog and let me know!