I recently read Alice Hoffman’s The Third Angel, which brought me back to an element of novels that I really love: magical realism. This is one of those hard-to-define, I-know-it-when-I-see-it aspects of writing. It’s not the same as paranormal stories, which are posited on what ifs. What if vampires were real? What if shapeshifters existed? What if aliens lived among us?
Magical realism, which is most often reserved for more ‘literary’ works and not often applied to genre work like romance and science fiction, is more of a device. It might involve playing with time/timelines, linking causality of seemingly unrelated events, and making the magical and ordinary seem as though they are one in the same. As Bruce Holland Rogers explains in this (older but) helpful article, magical realism paints “the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary”.
While I’m sure I’ve loved stories using these techniques most of my reading life, I really became aware of the meaning of magical realism some years ago when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was considered a master of the technique, and the book is full of beautiful imagery and fantastical events that feel incredibly real in the context of the story. Another of my favorite books of the past decade is In the Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón had me from the page where he introduced the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the secret and sacred library where the protagonist Daniel’s father takes him to choose a forgotten book that Daniel must protect and save for future generations.
It’s not surprising that two of my favorite books using magical realism were originally Spanish-language books, as magical realism was first attributed to Latin writers. It’s been used by writers in several of my favorite books such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. So Hoffman’s The Third Angel is, in my opinion, joining great company. At its core, Hoffman’s book is about love, loss, and grief and the many ways, both ordinary and extraordinary, these basic but complex human experiences manifest themselves.
Embedded in The Third Angel are coincidences (if you believe in the ordinary), which might really be some sort of divine intersection (if you believe in the extraordinary), of major story events happening over the course of several decades in the same shabby chic London hotel. Also running through the entire story is the thread of a family fairy tale, passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughters, of a blue heron who will return for his true love, his life mate. The way the blue heron story and the need to believe in everlasting love affects each of the women is woven into each of their personal journeys.
So this is a blog about writing, and even when we talk about what we’re reading, we’re interested in how it impacts our writing. I’d never be able to choose an all-time favorite book. If forced, at best I might be able to pare it down to the top fifty. And of those fifty, at least ten, maybe more, of them would have elements of magical realism. How does that impact my writing? What does that say about the kind of writing I’d like to do?
The truth is, at this point, I’m not sure. But reading The Third Angel and taking a trip back to some of my favorite stories of the past several years has me thinking about story and writing in a different light this week. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. In the meantime, tell me about any books with magical realism that you’ve read and enjoyed. Extra points if you have any recommendations that are romances or have strong romantic elements!