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27 Best Magical Realism Books

 

Hoisting Our Dreams Into the Light of Another Sun by Paul Bond

Stories with magical realism tend to take place in the real world with a few life-changing fantastical elements thrown in. Magical realism usually involves intensely personal journeys instead of epic sword-and-sorcery quests. They also tend to be stand-alone books, instead of series (which fantasy readers tend to love). Book series often rely on the protagonists not changing very much from book to book, while in magical realism books, protagonists usually undergo profound transformations.

 

27
Mr. Fox
by Helen Oyeyemi – 2011

Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding, and the fairy tales don’t get complicated. In this book, the celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently.

Mary challenges Mr. Fox to join her in stories of their own devising; and in different times and places, the two of them seek each other, find each other, thwart each other, and try to stay together, even when the roles they inhabit seem to forbid it. Their adventures twist the fairy tale into nine variations, exploding and teasing conventions of genre and romance, and each iteration explores the fears that come with accepting a lifelong bond. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

“Oyeyemi exuberantly opens doors into other realms, minds and eras—and uncovers beautiful truths at every twisted turn.”
—NPR

26
Winter's Tale
by Mark Helprin – 1983

One winter night, Peter Lake—master mechanic and second-storey man—attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the affair between a middle-aged Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead.

“[Mark Helprin] creates tableaux of such beauty and clarity that the inner eye is stunned.”
—Publishers Weekly

25
The Girl with Glass Feet
by Ali Shaw – 2009

Strange things are happening on the remote and snowbound archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land. Unusual winged creatures flit around the icy bogland, albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods, and Ida Maclaird is slowly turning into glass. Ida is an outsider in these parts, a mainlander who has visited the islands only once before. Yet during that one fateful visit, the glass transformation began to take hold, and now she has returned in search of a cure.

Midas Crook is a young loner who has lived on the islands his entire life. When he meets Ida, something about her sad, defiant spirit pierces his emotional defenses. As Midas helps Ida come to terms with her affliction, she gradually unpicks the knots of his heart. Love must be paid in precious hours and, as the glass encroaches, time is slipping away fast. Will they find a way to stave off the spread of the glass?

“[The] novel flows gracefully and is wonderfully dreamlike, with the danger of the islands matched by the characters’ dark pasts.”
—Publishers Weekly

24
The Salt Roads
by Nalo Hopkinson – 2003

In 1804, shortly before the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue is renamed Haiti, a group of women gather to bury a stillborn baby. Led by a lesbian healer and midwife named Mer, the women’s lamentations inadvertently release the dead infant’s “unused vitality” to draw Ezili—the Afro-Caribbean goddess of sexual desire and love—into the physical world.

As Ezili explores her newfound powers, she travels across time and space to inhabit the midwife’s body—as well as those of Jeanne, a mixed-race dancer and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire living in 1880s Paris, and Meritet, an enslaved Greek-Nubian prostitute in ancient Alexandria.

Bound together by Ezili and “the salt road” of their sweat, blood, and tears, the three women struggle against a hostile world, unaware of the goddess’s presence in their lives. Despite her magic, Mer suffers as a slave on a sugar plantation until Ezili plants the seeds of uprising in her mind. Jeanne slowly succumbs to the ravages of age and syphilis when her lover is unable to escape his mother’s control. And Meritet, inspired by Ezili, flees her enslavement and makes a pilgrimage to Egypt, where she becomes known as Saint Mary.

“[S]exy, disturbing, touching, wildly comic . . . tour de force.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

23
The Famished Road
by Ben Okri – 1991

Winner of the Man Booker Prize

Azaro is a spirit child, an abiku, existing, according to the African tradition, between life and death. Born into the human world, he must experience its joys and tragedies. His spirit companions come to him often, hounding him to leave his mortal world and join them in their idyllic one. Azaro foresees a trying life ahead, but he is born smiling. This is his story.

“Okri shares with García Márquez a vision of the world as one of infinite possibility. . . . A masterpiece.”
—The Boston Sunday Globe

22
A Floating Life
by Tad Crawford – 2012

Following a harrowing job interview in a steam room, a nameless narrator leaves his youthful dreams behind. He finds himself at a party talking to a woman he doesn’t know, who proves to be his wife. Soon separated from her but still living in the same apartment, he is threatened by a litigious dachshund and saddled with a stubborn case of erectile dysfunction in a world that seems held together by increasingly mercurial laws and elusive boundaries.

His relationship deepens with an elderly Dutch model maker named Pecheur, whose miniature boats are erratically offered for sale in a hard-to-find shop called The Floating World. Enlivened by Pecheur’s dream to tame the destructive forces of nature, the narrator begins to find his bearings.

“Odd, offbeat, and strangely shimmering.”
—Kirkus Reviews

21
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy – 1997

Winner of the Man Booker Prize

The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing big secrets in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest.

“Dazzling . . . as subtle as it is powerful.”
—The New York Times

20
Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston – 1937

In the beginning, there was Nanny. Nanny knew what it meant to be a slave to men. And Nanny had a daughter. She saw what happened to her, how she chose to escape pain in oblivion. And Nanny was scared. She was so scared that she wanted to prevent the same thing from happening to her daughter’s daughter, even if it meant that she had to force her grandchild to be unhappy, as long as she was unhappy in a different, secure way, with an old and stable man by her side.

19
The Immortalists
by Chloe Benjamin – 2018

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

“A captivating family saga.”
—The New York Times Book Review

18
Summer of Salt
by Katrina Leno – 2018

Georgina Fernweh waits impatiently for the tingle of magic in her fingers—magic that has touched every woman in her family. But with her eighteenth birthday looming at the end of this summer, Georgina fears her gift will never come.

Over the course of her last summer on the island—a summer of storms, falling in love, and the mystery behind one rare three-hundred-year-old bird—Georgina will learn the truth about magic, in all its many forms.

“Crackles with wit, humor, and enormous love.”
—Booklist (starred review)

17
Midnight's Children
by Salman Rushdie – 1981

Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.

“Pure story—an ebullient, wildly clowning, satirical, descriptively witty charge of energy.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

16
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov – 1967

One spring afternoon, the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow.

Written during the darkest period of Stalin’s repressive reign and a devastating satire of Soviet life, it combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem, each brimming with incident and with historical, imaginary, frightful and wonderful characters. Although completed in 1940, The Master and Margarita was not published until 1966 when the first section appeared in the monthly magazine Moskva. Russians everywhere responded enthusiastically to the novel’s artistic and spiritual freedom and it was an immediate and enduring success.

“By turns hilarious, mysterious, contemplative, and poignant . . . A great work.”
—Chicago Tribune

15
Bone Gap
by Laura Ruby – 2015

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps.

So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. But Finn knows what really happened to Roza. He knows she was kidnapped by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember.

“Cleverly conceived, and lusciously written.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

14
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
by Leslye Walton – 2014

Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naive to the twisted motives of others.

“An entrancing and sumptuously written multigenerational novel wrapped in the language of fable, magical realism, and local legend.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

13
The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende – 1982

The House of the Spirits follows the triumphs and tragedies of three generations of the Trueba family. The patriarch Esteban is a volatile, proud man whose voracious pursuit of political power is tempered only by his love for his delicate wife Clara, a woman with a mystical connection to the spirit world. When their daughter Blanca embarks on a forbidden love affair in defiance of her implacable father, the result is an unexpected gift to Esteban: his adored granddaughter Alba, a beautiful and strong-willed child who will lead her family and her country into a revolutionary future.

“Spectacular…An absorbing and distinguished work.”
—The New York Times Book Review

12
The World That We Knew
by Alice Hoffman – 2019
In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses, to a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times…gravely beautiful…Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.”
—The New York Times

11
Lily and the Octopus
by Steven Rowley – 2016

Ted—a gay, single, struggling writer is stuck: unable to open himself up to intimacy except through the steadfast companionship of Lily, his elderly dachshund that he can communicate with. When Lily’s health is compromised, Ted vows to save her by any means necessary.

“Sensitive, hilarious, and emotionally rewarding…. The intimacy of pet ownership is sweetly suffused throughout this heartwarming autobiographical fiction… an immensely poignant and touchingly relatable tale.”
—Publishers Weekly

10
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami – 2002

Kafka on the Shore follows the fortunes of two characters: Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home at fifteen, under the shadow of his father’s dark prophecy, and the aging Nakata, tracker of lost cats, who never recovered from a bizarre childhood affliction, and finds his pleasantly simplified life suddenly turned upside down.

Cats converse with people; fish tumble from the sky; a ghostlike pimp deploys a Hegel-spouting girl of the night; a forest harbors soldiers apparently un-aged since WWII. There is a savage killing, but the identity of both victim and killer is a riddle.

9
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel – 2001

Winner of the Man Booker Prize

Pi Patel is an unusual boy. The son of a zookeeper, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories and practices not only from his native Hinduism but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is 16, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.

The ship sinks.

Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them “the truth.” After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional—but is it more true?

“An impassioned defense of zoos, a death-defying trans-Pacific sea adventure a la Kon-Tiki, and a hilarious shaggy-dog story . . . : This audacious novel manages to be all of these.”
—The New Yorker

8
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
by Aimee Bender – 2010

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up, she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

“Taking her very personal brand of pessimistic magical realism to new heights (or depths), Bender’s second novel… careens splendidly through an obstacle course of pathological, fantastical neuroses.”
—Publishers Weekly

7
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead – 2016

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora, an outcast even among her fellow Africans. She is coming into womanhood, where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

The Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

“Perfectly balances the realism of its subject with fabulist touches that render it freshly illuminating.”
—Time

6
The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern – 2011
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

“Magical. Enchanting. Spellbinding. Mesmerizing.”
—Associated Press

5
Invisible Cities
by Italo Calvino – 1972

This is possibly my favorite book of all time. The imagination, the tenderness, and the sense of wonder here is unlike anything I’ve come across anywhere.

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo—Mongol emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts his host with stories of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. As Marco Polo unspools his tales, the emperor detects these fantastic places are more than they appear.

4
Beloved
by Toni Morrison – 1987

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Author Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

It is the mid-1800s. In Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D. are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death—the death of Sethe’s baby daughter Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.

“Dazzling. . . . Magical. . . . An extraordinary work.”
—The New York Times

3
Ficciones
by Jorge Luis Borges – 1944

The seventeen pieces in Ficciones demonstrate the gargantuan powers of imagination, intelligence, and style of one of the greatest writers of this or any other century. Borges sends us on a journey into a compelling, bizarre, and profoundly resonant realm; we enter the fearful sphere of Pascal’s abyss, the surreal and literal labyrinth of books, and the iconography of eternal return. More playful and approachable than the fictions themselves are Borges’s Prologues, brief elucidations that offer the uninitiated a passageway into the whirlwind of Borges’s piercing irony, his skepticism, and his obsession with fantasy.

“[Borges is] a central fact of Western culture.”
—Washington Post Book World

2
Like Water for Chocolate
by Laura Esquivel – 1989

This classic love story takes place on the De la Garza ranch, as the tyrannical owner, Mama Elena, chops onions at the kitchen table in her final days of pregnancy. While still in her mother’s womb, her daughter-to-be to be weeps so violently she causes an early labor, and little Tita slips out amid the spices and fixings for noodle soup. This early encounter with food soon becomes a way of life, and Tita grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers along the way.

“A tall-tale, fairy-tale, soap-opera romance, Mexican cookbook and home-remedy handbook all rolled into one, Like Water For Chocolate is one tasty entree.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

1
One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez – 1967

Author Gabriel García Márquez is commonly considered to have invented the genre of magical realism with this book. He also won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. Rich and brilliant, it is a chronicle of life, death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the beautiful, ridiculous, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.

“More lucidity, wit, wisdom, and poetry than is expected from 100 years of novelists, let alone one man.”
—Washington Post

2 replies on “27 Best Magical Realism Books”

I’ve a friend who has recommended many of these books to me throughout the years and I shared this list with her as I thought she’d appreciate it. She loved it – she said it is a great list and that there are many books on here that she’d never heard of. You might have a new fan.

I’d also like to point out, since you mention the various awards won by these books and authors, that Gabriel García Márquez also won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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