Nancy: Do You Believe in Magic?

51vrDAu7cgL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_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!


8 thoughts on “Nancy: Do You Believe in Magic?

  1. I haven’t read a lot in this area – most recently it was some Gabriel Garcia Marquez for a graduate class. We also read some Aimee Bender, which falls into this category as well. At least her short story The Rememberer does. It’s in her collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I have her The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake in my TBR pile. It was probably the lemon cake in the title that caught my attention first 🙂 Not sure if any of hers have strong romantic elements. I’ll have to get back to you on that when I finish the book.

    I’ve written a few “magical realism” short stories of my own (mostly classwork). They are fun and a definite change of pace from traditional Regency romances.

    • Thanks for the Aimee Bender recommendation. I’ll have to check out her work! Agreed, magical realism is quite different from historical romance, but there are paranormal historical romances out there (I wrote one some years back, when it was more in fashion :-)). So I’m thinking about blending the genres. Magical realism doesn’t fit into my current Victorian romance series, but who knows…maybe a future project!

      • I don’t know Nancy – magical realism and Victorian might work well together. There was a fascination during that period with seances and mysticism and whatnot – magical realism would just be a step or two further.

  2. You don’t mention Haruki Murakami here. His Norwegian Wood is basically a romance, but it is his work with the least magical realism elements. There may not be any at all in that work, truth be told. Kafka on the Shore has talking cats. Everyone likes talking cats.

    • Thanks for bringing up Murakami. Although he’s been around for decades, he’s a fairly new-to-me author. I’ll have to check out Norwegian Wood.

      I wonder if Michaeline (who lives in Japan) is more familiar with his work, as he seems to be a literary powerhouse there. I’ve only read the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I admit I found confusing, but whether it’s the plot or the translation that confuses me is hard to say.

  3. Oh, I used to love Alice Hoffman, but she never used to be able to do endings. She’d have some guy swoop in near the end, and suddenly everything was wrapped up and finished. I read something of hers later that had a pretty decent ending. I’ll have to put this on my wishlist!

    I’m never quite sure where magical realism ends and genre begins. Is Michael Chabon’s *The Yiddish Policeman’s Union* magical realism? Seems like straightforward alt history, to me. Or *Like Water for Chocolate*? Magic is part of the world, but it’s not a force that anyone can really control, it seems. It just happens, like earthquakes and love.

    I haven’t read much Murakami. I think I read an English translation of Norwegian Wood which was pleasant. I really don’t remember much. In a lot of Japanese fiction, there seems to be such a lot of abandonment and people with strange living situations who find bizarre methods of coping.

    I did read a short story in Japanese (I was planning to read more stuff to improve my Japanese for a test; the self-improvement phase lasted about two hours). Still, it was a wonderful story about a neighbor who was a bear. A real bear, who acted very humanly, but was still a bear. Just charming. And people can be such bears sometimes; it played with our perception about what an anthromorphized bear should be.

    Anyway, I always feel like I should read more Murakami, but there’s something slithery about his prose (no, that’s not right; I read it in translation — narrative? methods?) that’s hard to grasp. I suppose that goes for all magical realists. It’s part of the charm, but it also leaves one a little bit empty, I feel.

    • Oh, Chabon’s YPU has been in my TBR pile for a long time so I’m not sure if it’s magical realism, but I think it’s time to move it into the ‘reading’ pile. I loved Like Water for Chocolate, definitely magical
      realism. And that made me think of the movie Chocolat, which I would say was a romance with MR elements.

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