This article is updated twice yearly with our latest picks.
Magical realism is one of the most unique forms of narrative fiction. It also happens to be one of the easiest genres to fall in love with. Weaving elements of magic and fantasy into a realm that's very much rooted in what we know to be real allows the reader to dabble in make believe without feeling like it's not relatable. They disrupt the notion of objective reasoning and perception, which can be really freeing.
Simply put, magical realism is the perfect genre for anyone with a big imagination and an appreciation for stories and characters they can really connect with and learn from. So whether you've been devouring magical realism books for as long as you could read, or you're curious to dabble in this hybrid of gritty reality and the divine, our reading list below will be just the mental vacation you're looking for. Read on to learn more about these enchanting magical realism books and add the most enticing to your own bookshelves.
Here are our picks for the best magical realism books.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake sounds like a metaphor, but in this book, it's both allegorical and literal, as the protagonist, a young girl, eats feelings that aren't her own. With every bite of food she takes, she absorbs the feelings of whoever made it. Not just observes them, but literally ingests the pain, the boredom, the glee, the fear, you name it… Talk about bad taste in your mouth. As expected, it leads to some trouble. When she bites into a lemon birthday cake lovingly baked by her mother, she discovers that behind the façade of cheer, there's deep despair.
Aimee Bender draws us into the interior worlds of people by describing the most mundane things with such poignancy (so much that you could—and will—cry).
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushie
Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is another quintessential magical realism book. Decidedly rooted in historical events, it specifically takes place during the partition of British India in 1948. It also weaves in folklore from Arabian Nights, and the narrator has telepathic powers. If you're curious to learn more about this history but also prefer to study it through the lens of literature, pick up this book.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Each short story in Helen Oyeyemi's debut collection revolves around a key and the lock it opens. There's a mysterious and magical diary, a blooming garden, a library with living books, and a house where the rooms won't close unless you have the lock to shut them. It's the perfect dose of magical realism, and we love that there's a common thread to each impressionistic short story.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Half of the chapters in this book unfold the story of a young runaway named Kafka who leaves home to escape a curse, while the other half revolves around an older man who has left home for the first time to find a lost cat. Their lives become entangled, though obscurely so. There are allusions to Oedipus, a murder investigation, plenty of references to pop culture, and talking animals. Haruki Murakami is an expert storyteller, and this is a great one to start with if you haven't read any of his work yet.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Relentless brilliantly, beautiful, and tragic, this story has a little bit of everything. There's family tragedy, forbidden love, political unrest, and alliteration galore, so you'll enjoy it whether you're looking for something literary, if or you're in the mood for a plot-driven novel. As the title implies, the reader witnesses the interconnection between mundane details and lofty, large-scale happenings, both good and bad. Though not overtly a magical realism book, it still plays with the genre. For example, everything has a personality, whether it's the house, a feeling, the country, the characters themselves, a coffin, and a dead child in the coffin.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Who knew a memoir could be included in a list of magical realism books? That's just one more reason to consider Maxine Hong Kingston an ingenious pioneer. Now considered an American classic, this memoir challenges the conventions of the genre and offers new ways to tell stories that represent the ways in which truth, memory, and make-believe often overlap. Neither straight autobiography nor fiction, she writes about her family's past, Chinese legend, and her own childhood.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed magical realism book of all time, 100 Years of Solitude deserves a place in any avid reader's library. You will be transported to the fictional Colombian town of Macondo, where García Márquez creates an enchanting universe full of colorful jungles, a city made of mirrors, and people who live for hundreds of years. Beyond the spellbinding plot itself, this book is full of quotable moments and passages. It's a bit like a surreal painting in that supernatural chaos is living right next to mundane, everyday reality.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
If you've already read Beloved in school, it's time to pick it back up for a second go. Indeed, this unforgettable ghost story is so much more than just a ghost story. It reveals the ways in which slavery's legacy maintains a strong, haunting presence throughout the Reconstruction and into the present. It also emphasizes the transformative, but undefinable, power of romantic, maternal, and self-love. So in many ways, it reads like a love story.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Ali Smith might be one of the greatest writers of our time. Though she's often discussed as a postmodern novelist, she's also known to dabble in magical realism. If you love books that offer experimental representations of time, both formally and thematically, this is the book for you. Her writing is evocative and unique because she does not strive to capture the human experience through linear time, but rather through the internal consciousness of her characters. Interestingly enough, her newest project is a series of four books, each separated neatly by seasons, which is a traditional measurement of the passing of time. But don't be fooled; she still manages to push boundaries and create wholly innovative stories. Autumn is the first in the quartet.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Spanning decades and three generations of the Trueba family, The House of the Spirits plays with notions of fate and destiny, lineage and family bonds, and the ways in which tragedies can become miracles. Allende's masterpiece is a prime example of magical realism, so pick this up if you're looking for an enthralling introduction to the genre.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
This book has it all: An alluring setting (New York City's Lower East Side in 1969), a relatable, yet complicated, driving question (would you want to know the day of your death if someone could predict it?), and entertaining family dynamics that span multiple decades and cities. In The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin introduces us to a mystic who predicts that date for four teenage siblings. They then set out to live their lives as self-fulfilling prophecies, revealing the ways in which fate does and does not exist. Each sibling experiments with different notions of magic, reality, fantasy, science, and immortality.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Orlando is a bit of everything. Not quite surrealism, not quite fantasy or sci-fi, this book involves unconventional narrative devices that stretch our imaginations without using magic in the plot. This book is a metafictional novel that presents itself as a biography, as the narrator tracks the experiences of an individual over the course of their 300-year life. As it progresses, it becomes a highly imaginative story wherein the protagonist is both timeless and gender-fluid. Woolf uses this book as a space to urge her readers to move away from traditional notions of truth as objective, and rather to assert the importance of imagination and ambiguity in all forms of storytelling, legend, fiction, and biography alike. As with all of Woolf's work, it's a brilliant masterpiece full of wisdom beyond its time.
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
For anyone who loves innovative forms and anything meta, pick up this groundbreaking novel by Italo Calvino. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is about you, the reader, reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Each chapter in is broken up into two sections, the first being a second-person narration that uses prolepsis (basically describing you as you read what you're about to read in the next chapter), and the second is the fictional plot. It'll make you reflect on the nature of reality, art, and perception while also being thoroughly entertaining and mind-blowing.
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
This collection of short stories is a captivating read. It's eerie, erotic, absurd, and effective. One story is a series of passages, with each one reimagining an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
Want to dabble in magical realism but aren't ready to commit to a full-on novel? Try this collection of short stories to get a taste of magical realism in its purest form. Each story in Jorge Luis Borges's collection wrestles with grand ideas and philosophical contexts, but through playful and accessible narratives, which makes them very fun to read.