My young adult novel You Can’t Shatter Me is magical realism, and all my fiction has magical realism elements, in particular The Prunella Smith books . But what does that mean exactly? What is magical realism? Here’s what Wikapedia says about it.
“Magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction  in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the “real” and the “fantastic” in the same stream of thought. It is a film, literary and visual art genre.”
The question this raises is how is it different to fantasy? Magical realism is set in the real world. Fantasy is set in a fantasy world. Even in urban fantasy, the witches, fairies, vampires and so on that populate the world make it not the real world as we know it. The real difference lies in the purpose of the magical elements. In magical realism they are there to emphasize something, usually a characters perception or inner experience. They are there to illuminate reality, to help us look at our reality in a different way.
Magical realism is often considered a literary form of fiction and I expect that this is because the magical elements have meaning. They aren’t there for decoration, rather to make a point. The magical elements usually have their basis in metaphors which are extended until they become a tangible part of the characters experience.
For example, in You Can’t Shatter Me, flying words attack Dylan as he tries to make a decision. This shows how threatened he feels by his thoughts. When Justin hassles Carly in class, a fishing rod appears above her with a hook labeled with his abusive words. This shows that he’s trying to hook her, and the way she deals with the fishing rod is an analogy for a way to deal with verbal abuse. In the same way, love and compassion appears as light shining in our heroine’s chest, a light that she learns to send to others. Why? To emphasise its power.
Magical realism is the term used to describe the work of writers like Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind) and is a relatively unknown genre. You won’t find a shelf for it in your local bookstore. Such books would be shelved under literature, general fiction or perhaps contemporary fiction. It’s a genre with a lot of potential and perhaps because of this, it will become more widely written and read. There are enough magical realism books in the Awesome Indies listing for me to give them their own page.
Magical realism blurs the line between fantasy and reality in a more subtle way than urban fantasy does, and instead of taking us out of reality as fantasy does, it highlights aspects of reality as we perceive it.
Have you read any magical realism? If so, would you recommend it?
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An Interesting article, although I would disagree that it’s a relatively unknown genre. For example, Haruki Murakami, someone considered a writer of magical realism, has enjoyed huge popularity and fame on account of his novels and short stories. Also, I wonder if you would consider Borges, or even Kafka, as magical realists?
I think magical realism is difficult to define because from culture to culture its meaning, and what it is attached to, varies.
Thanks for your article, it gave me a lot to think about.
Tahlia Newland says
Yes, it is difficult to define and I wouldn’t want to limit it with a too tight definition, but I think the point that it illuminates reality rather than replaces it is a good one. Athol Dickinson said something like that on a post on Racheal Gardner’s blog some time ago.
The reason I said it isn’t well known is a perception I’ve gained because I’ve come across a lot of people who don’t know what it is. I guess it depends on what circles you move in.