Magical realism: A Primer

Trusty Wikipedia defines Magical Realism as an aesthetic style or narrative mode in literature in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are explained like normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner which allows the “real” and the “fantastic” to be accepted in the same stream of thought.

That sums it up pretty nicely. (But here is a bit more.)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is considered one of the most well-known magical realists, specifically for One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Great book, by the way.) For whatever reason, when I first started hearing term ‘magical realism’ it was always in the context of Latin American writers. And then when more North American writers started adopting the style, I read lots of debates about who ‘owns’ this style, as if only one group ever has the sole right to utilize a particular art form.

All cultures have incorporated magical realism into their storytelling tradition at some point in its evolution. Even European ones. All the religious fables and stories could be considered a form of magical realism – the fantastic and the real blended together into a seamless reality.

At this point in the game, the style has been around long enough that it can be encompassed and used by any writer from anywhere on earth. To me, that is significant development in the evolution of magical realism. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Alice Hoffman imbues most of her works with magical realism. Some are more obvious. Others, like Skylight Confessions, have subtle moments of magical realism that support the main story. There is a ghost easily accepted by the main characters and signs of the ghost that other characters see but don’t understand – soot appearing, the presence of birds, broken glass and china.

My favorite detail in this vein is the strand of pearls Arlyn receives that change color and texture. When she is happy and in love, the pearls blush. During her chemotherapy, they darkened into black stones. They have the ability to define Arlyn’s life and mood in that moment without overtaking the plot.

This subtly reveals the power of magical realism. Hoffman can expand the reader’s understanding of the characters in Skylight Confessions without flat-out telling the reader all the facts. Dark pearls are foreboding. Soot on the windows is sad. All without having to use those words at all.
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