Magical Realism Fiction – Why Do We Love the Magic So Much? (Plus Three Great Books)
I just finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Now there’s a mouth-watering title for a devout reader, a magical sounding name like Penumbra and a reference to books. We just know we’re going to have a great escape reading this book. And I did. I could hardly wait until evening, when I could pick up my device and tap the pages forward, learning about a mysterious underground library and how it might relate to Silicon Valley. I was so enthralled I signed up for SF Bay Area author Sloan’s newsletter. The magic in this magical realism novel was one part conspiracy, one part occult, and one part technology. The perfect elixir for me, also a resident of the Bay Area. FIVE STARS!
But what is it that makes us crave magic in our stories? I think the very telling of a tale implies that the listener will be lifted out of ordinary reality. After all, a novel is a device, a machine made of words in order to evoke feelings and realizations. It’s a crafted object. Real life has its magical moments but they’re usually few and far between, and a novel with magic in it lets us binge on that otherworldly feeling.
Another book that made me binge-read was Aimee Bender’s TheParticular Sadness of Lemon Cake. In that lovely, sad, and affirming story, a young girl can taste the feelings of the person who created the food she eats. This makes life very difficult, as most people have a lot of unpleasant feelings, so she starts not wanting to eat. But of course ultimately this draws her to want to create food herself. FIVE STARS ISN’T ENOUGH FOR THIS FABULOUS PIECE OF LITERATURE!
I find magical realism more compelling that straight-up fantasy. It has to do with the fact that real life has its magical dimensions and moments -- moments of inspiration, transporting love, and heightened perception. Magical realism doesn’t put me on another planet the way fantasy does. It keeps me on this one, and despite the chaos and destruction we hear about every day, this form of literature encourages me to believe in those magical dimensions I've experienced as being more important. It urges wonder and allows hope.
We need wonder and hope right now, more than ever. They’re built into human consciousness, and the headlines, which are the opposite of magical realism, tend to shut them down. So magical realism makes me feel more opened out than reading the news.
Another magical realism book I recently tapped my way quickly through was Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells. I have to give it only FOUR STARS. There was something a little too folky, small-town nostalgia about the writing. There wasn’t quite enough realism for me. I often felt I was reading sketches of characters, rather than characters in their depth and reality. Bad things happened to good people, but I remained unconvinced. Still, the magical trope, the special gifts each of the three sisters had, and the prophesying apple tree (nice evocation of the Garden of Eden), hooked me as magical elements that evoked wonder and belief. And yes, hope.
I’m just starting a new one, hopefully. David Pandolfe's Jump When Ready starts with a narrator in the afterlife, much like Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning, another good magical realism read. Stay tuned for more micro-reviews of these.