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 unrelatable. 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.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
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).
A Taste of the Magic: "We stepped into the street and George grabbed my hand and the ghosts of our younger selves crossed with us. We hit the sidewalk, and dropped hands. How I wished, right then, that the whole world was a street."
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "Memory's truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own."
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
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 a 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.
A Taste of the Magic: "It was the usual struggle between one who loves by accepting burdens and one who loves by refusing to be one."
Kafka on the Shore
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "Closing your eyes isn't going to change anything. Nothing's going to disappear just because you can't see what's going on. In fact, things will even be worse the next time you open your eyes. That's the kind of world we live in. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes."
The God of Small Things
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 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 as 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.
A Taste of the Magic: "But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved.
And how. And how much."
The Woman Warrior
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by necessity, a riverbank that guides her life. She plants vegetable gardens rather than lawns; she carries the odd-shaped tomatoes home from the field and eats food left for the gods."
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude."
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "Love it. Love it hard… This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved… More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize."
Ali Smith is 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.
A Taste of the Magic: "Time travel is real, Daniel said. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute."
The House of the Spirits
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "You can't find someone who doesn't want to be found."
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "The point is not to negate reality, but to peel back its scrim, revealing reality's peculiarities and contradictions."
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy."
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be."
Her Body and Other Parties
This collection of short stories was such a captivating read that I had to try to pace myself so I wouldn't devour the whole thing in one (Wi-Fi–free) plane ride. It's eerie, erotic, absurd, and effective. The other night I had a dream that she fleshed out one of the short stories into a full-fledged novel (I'm blowing my cover as a full-on book geek, here). One story is a series of passages, with each one reimagining an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
A Taste of the Magic: "There are true things in this world observed by a single set of eyes."
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.
A Taste of the Magic: "From my weakness, I drew strength that never left me."