What is magical realism?

Today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite genres: magical realism. A few years ago, I read my first Haruki Murakami novel–and although I loved it, I had no idea how to classify it, or find more books like it. After a bit of research, I learned more about the term “magical realism”. I’m sharing a bit about it here in hopes that it will pique someone’s interest and allow them to discover a new niche.

What is magical realism?

Magical realism is a genre in which fantastical events take place in the modern world. Extraordinary or hard-to-believe phenomena live alongside realistic depictions of daily life. This may sound similar to a lot of fantasy out there, but there are a few distinctions that separate it from urban fantasies like Harry Potter (I am going to use this example throughout to show why it is not magical realism).

What makes magical realism unique?

  1. There isn’t a new magical world to discover.

In magical realism, the magic resides in our world, blending seamlessly with reality. Although the character may not realize that it exists, the author reveals it over the course of the story. This qualification already rules out a sizable chunk of urban fantasy. The wizarding world of Harry Potter, for example, is exactly that: a wizarding world. There is a division that essentially separates the muggle reality from any magic that may exist.

2. Maintenance of logical order by the narrator and characters.

Magical realism treats any fantastical events like they are perfectly normal. The description of these events feels completely natural, so a scene about traversing a dreamscape wouldn’t be any different than a scene describing a walk to the park. This is true about character reaction as well: there isn’t any more an extraordinary response to a fantastical event than there would be to its more mundane counterpart. Harry’s extreme surprise to learning about his heritage (I’m a WOT) does not follow this convention of logical precision.

What are some magical realism tropes?

3. Mysteriousness.

Magical realism tends to have a layer of fog that permeates the plot. Readers will often walk away from a scene thinking “What just happened?”. Most likely, there will never be an explanation for how certain fantastical events came to happen. Unlike fantasy, there is no magic system to uncover. Readers must excpect the strange happenings, and act as a bridge between reality and fantasy to make their own interpretations. Trying to find out how something happens is often a lot less important than discovering why.

4. Overlapping planes.

Although #1 did say that the fantastical lives alongside reality in magical realism, often there is a contrast between planes of reality. Murakami utilizes this quite a bit in his novels, contrasting life in rural Japan and the chaos of inner Tokyo. There are jolts as a character travels between nature and urban landscapes, which helps to set the scene for the strange events that take place.

5. Less of a conventional plot.

Readers who like a well-defined arc will probably be put off by the lack of such plot in magical realism. Of course, there are a series of events set up in a plot-like structure, but often the storyline can become muddled and dreamlike. Since there is an overlap between reality and fantasy, the focus tends to be exploring those relationships rather than having a concrete exposition, rising action, etc.

6. Criticism

Authors use magical realism as a way of juxtaposing what is and what could have been, or highlighting the strange disparities of reality. Political and historical critique are interwoven throughout many stories of magical realism. Other topics include gender roles or other societal norms.

What are examples of magical realism?

Famous (and widely agreed upon) examples of magical realism include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Haruki Murakami’s novels, such as 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore are other examples. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Neil Gaiman novels incorporate themes of magical realism. Some recent examples you might have heard of include Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.

Of course, there are many different opinions about what qualifies as magical realism, and how it distinguishes itself from other forms of fantasy. Some will argue that any fantasy is magical realism. There are those who will fight to place Harry Potter under that umbrella. To me, there is certain tone that comes with magical realism that you can’t find in urban or epic fantasy. It is dreamlike and almost nostalgic, it’s those subtle moods you feel but don’t know how to describe. It invokes a sense of de ja vu for places you haven’t been and times you haven’t experienced. I encourage you to read books like the ones listed above and see what you think.

Happy reading,

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