Librarians just loooove to throw phrases around. When it comes to discussing books, we’re all “narrative arc” this and “dramatic monologue” that. One of the terms that is getting bandied about a lot these days is “magic realism.” Say what? How can something be both “magic” and “real” at the same time? And why do we apply this term to fiction, which isn’t real at all?
Maybe this will help clear up the confusion. In such novels, the characters and their actions (a.k.a. the plot — another literary term) are, for the most part, plausible. One would recognize them as people (as opposed to, say, rabbits) and one would believe the situations they encounter (getting pulled out of a hat, for instance. OK, maybe not.)
And then…something happens. Herbs and flowers from a backyard garden make their way into delectable food that influences people in wondrous ways, as in Sarah Addison Allen’s debut novel, Garden Spells. Or a character is transported to heaven while hanging clothes out to dry, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s sublime One Hundred Years of Solitude, considered by many to be one of the benchmarks of the genre.
With its fusion of reality and fantasy, magic realism acknowledges the premise that not everything in the visible world can be rationally explained. Myth, fable and folklore have long interpreted the world in this manner. Magic realism draws upon these traditions to introduce extraordinary events into an otherwise straightforward narrative.
In addition to Allen and Marquez, other authors known for works of magic realism are Isabel Allende (The House of Spirits); Yann Martel (Life of Pi); Erin Morgenstern (Night Circus); Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic); Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate); and Joanne Harris (Chocolat).
So, if you’re hesitant to pick up a book described as “magic realism” because it sounds a little too New Age-y or smacks a bit of far-out fantasy, don’t be. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised by a very recognizable and approachable form of fiction.