Magical realism is a genre of literature that blends elements of fantasy into realistic tales. On the surface, these stories often take place in normal, everyday settings with real-world characters. However, extraordinary, magical creatures and events are interwoven into the plot and require the reader to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the ride.
AT A Glance: Our Top 5 Picks for Magical Realism Books
- Nights at the Circus – Our Top Pick
- Kafka on the Shore
- Life of Pi
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Essentially, magical realism is about taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. It’s become a hugely popular genre in literature since it first gained traction in the 20th century, and it overlaps into plenty of other subgenres too.
One very similar subgenre is urban fantasy, and it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the two. In general, urban fantasy tends to feature more of the fantasy element than magical realism does. In an urban fantasy book, many of the characters are creatures such as wizards, witches, vampires, or werewolves. But in a magical realism book, it’s much more common to have a cast made up of regular everyday people.
There are countless fantastic magical realism books out there to get you started in the genre, but I’ve narrowed it down to a list of my top ten favorites.
10 Best Magical Realism Books
|Nights at the Circus||• Author: Angela Carter|
• Genres: Novel, Historical Fiction
|Kafka on the Shore||• Author: Haruki Murakami|
• Genres: Novel, Magical Realism, Fantasy Fiction
|Life of Pi||• Author: Yann Martel|
• Genres: Novel, Adventure fiction, Psychological Fiction, Philosophical fiction
|Beloved||• Author: Toni Morrison|
• Genres: Novel, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
|The Ocean at the End of the Lane||• Author: Neil Gaiman|
• Genres: Novel, Fantasy Fiction, Horror fiction, Magical Realism, Dark fantasy
|One Hundred Years of Solitude||• Author: Gabriel García Márquez|
• Genres: Novel, Magical Realism, High fantasy, Family saga, Epic Fiction
|The Upstairs House||• Author: Julia Fine|
• Genre: Psychological Fiction
|The Famished Road||• Author: Ben Okri|
• Genres: Novel, Fiction, Magical Realism, Allegory, Bildungsroman
|Midnight’s Children||• Author: Salman Rushdie|
• Genres: Novel, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction, Historiographic metafiction
|Perfume: The Story of a Murderer||• Author: Patrick Süskind|
• Genres: Novel, Mystery, Horror fiction, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
1. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984)
Sophie Fevvers is a world famous aerialist, the star of her circus, and Europe’s most celebrated acrobat. She also happens to be part woman, part swan.
Born with little nubs of wings for shoulderblades, she was abandoned at a brothel as a baby and spent her childhood working as a living statue street artist. When puberty finally set in, Sophie’s nubs transform into beautiful full feathered wings, and her career as a circus performer began.
But journalist Jack Walser doesn’t believe Sophie’s story for a moment. He’s determined to get to the bottom of what he believes is the real truth about her unusual condition. In order to expose her, he follows her circus on its grand European tour that takes them from London through to St Peterburg, all the way on into Siberia.
Spellbound and desperate for a scoop, Jack is in for a wild ride across the continent, and luckily, he brings us, the reader, along with him too.
This acclaimed novel was an instant success when it was first published in 1984, and it went on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)
Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore follows two very different characters whose lives are mysteriously synced together.
Kafka is a teenage boy who has run away from home after years of living like a shadow in his father’s house. He arrives in a new city without a friend in the world until a stroke of good fortune leads him to a library, and he meets an enigmatic assistant named Oshima.
Meanwhile, Nakata, an aging man with learning disabilities, is content living a sheltered life in a suburb of Tokyo. He spends his days talking fluently to the local cats, occasionally reuniting them with their bereft owners for a small fee. But his life is changed dramatically one day when his effort to save a feline companion leads him to a grizzly murder scene.
As the story unfolds, Kafka and Nataka are mysteriously drawn to each other as they explore their bizarre worlds, destined to intertwine.
3. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
Piscine “Pi” Patel, a zookeeper’s son from Pondicheery, South India, tests his father’s patience when he declares he is a believer of not one but three different faiths; Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. But his faith in all three is pushed to its limits when he finds himself stranded in the middle of the pacific ocean on a lifeboat, with only a group of his father’s prized zoo animals for company.
There he is, bobbing along in the vast ocean, with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and, most worryingly of all, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The tiger’s animal instincts force Pi to push himself to his very limits so that they may both survive.
This moving, humorous and heartwarming tale was an international bestseller and became a blockbuster movie directed by Ang Lee.
4. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
Toni Morrison’s Beloved became an international bestseller after it was first published back in 1987, and it went on to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
It tells the emotional tale of a woman named Sethe, who, despite having escaped her life of slavery, still doesn’t feel free. Eighteen years have passed, but she is haunted by memories of her harrowing time on that farm, and the baby she never got to raise. The child was born nameless, with only a single word, “Beloved,” inscribed on a tombstone to mark her fleeting moment in this world.
Sethe tries day after day to bury her past and move forward in life, but she can never shake the realities of where she came from and what she went through. Then one day, a teenage girl mysteriously arrives in town bearing the name “Beloved,” and Sethe is floored. Now, she’s forced to confront the truth about what happened all those years ago.
5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)
Neil Gaiman’s exploration into magical realism brings us a modern yet timeless fairytale adventure. The story centers around an unnamed middle aged man who returns to his childhood hometown to attend a funeral.
His trip unearths some deeply buried memories from childhood, and he reminisces about his old friend and neighbor, a young girl named Lettie Hempstock. Lettie was a strange character; for example, she always believed that the small pond at the end of the lane wasn’t a pond at all; it was actually an ocean.
As far as he can recall, Lettie moved away to Australia. But did she really? As our hero explores his old childhood haunts, he receives glimpses of his early years that astound him. He beings to realize that his upbringing wasn’t quite as idyllic as he’d remembered, and he’s about to uncover some terrifying yet magical secrets about the past.
6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
One Hundred Years of Solitude follows the fascinating story of the Buendias- the founding family of a fictional Colombian town. Set over a full century, this adventure-driven family finds themselves at the heart of several poignant events from Colombia’s history.
They’re faced with political upheaval, violent attacks, and rapid technological change that mirrors that of so many families who lived during that period.
This epic tale is packed with fascinating characters, plenty of symbolism, and glimmers of magic amongst the mundane. This landmark story has been described by many as a “fairytale for adults” and is regarded as the most influential novel to come out of Latin America to date.
7. The Upstairs House by Julia Fine (2021)
Julia Fine’s brand new novel follows the story of a new mother, Megan Weiler, who is suffering from a postpartum psychological breakdown inside the four walls of her house.
Battered, bruised, and sore after the birth of her first child, Megan finds herself raising her newborn baby alone while her husband travels for work.
Life is a daily struggle, one without the luxury of sleep, and she’s physically and mentally drained. To add to her anguish, Megan tears herself apart with guilt over an unfinished university thesis: a dissertation on mid-century children’s literature.
When things look like they can’t get any worse, a new upstairs neighbor makes an appearance; the ghost of children’s book writer doyenne, Margaret Wise Brown. But no one else seems to acknowledge Margaret’s presence; it’s as if Megan is the only one who can see her.
It’s apparent that Margaret has unfinished business with her ex-lover, the famous actor Michael Strange. He proceeds to join the haunting of Megan’s upstairs floor, and now, she’s caught up in the middle of a bitter power struggle from beyond the grave.
8. The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)
Our narrator Azaru is a spirit child, what is known as an abiku in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. He exists somewhere between the world of the living and the dead, and his path ahead is almost certainly marked by loss and sorrow. But despite his sadness, for some untold reason, he was born with a smile on his face.
As a child, Azaru is summoned back into the land of the dead, but through the sheer will and determination of his parents, he is resurrected and survives. But now, thanks to their efforts to save their boy, Azaru’s family are poor and destitute.
Azaru is forced to walk the line between the living world, with all of its struggles, political upheaval, violence and unrest, and that of the spirit world; beautiful, calm, and carefree.
Ben Okri’s Famished Road went on to win the coveted Booker Prize, and his novel has since become a classic.
9. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1995)
At the stroke of midnight, on the eve of India’s Independence, 1,001 children were born, and among them is a boy named Saleem Sinai. Each of these children is bestowed with special gifts, extraordinary talents that will set them apart from others for their whole lives.
But with these gifts also comes a curse. Saleem’s telepathic powers connect him to the rest of the ‘midnight’s children, all 1000 of them. They are all linked by the strange coincidence of their birth, somehow handcuffed to history.
This classic novel follows a captivating family saga, full of triumph and disaster, through India’s incredible transformation throughout the 20th century.
10. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind (1985)
Born into destitution in the slums of eighteenth century Paris, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has a divine gift; an absolutely perfect sense of smell. Throughout his youth, he uses his unique talent to decode the many aromas of his city, and as he gets older, he sets out on a path to study the art of perfumery.
He learns the ancient techniques of mixing precious herbs and essential oils, but his incredible ability means he’s never quite satisfied.
Grenouille is obsessed with capturing and bottling the scents of the objects around him, scents that other people can’t seem to detect. At first, his mission is harmless; he persues the smells of nature, like fresh-cut wood and wild spruce. But one day, he detects a scent unlike any other; that of a beautiful young virgin. Now, his mission to create the ‘ultimate perfume’ has become a deadly obsession.
Magical realism novels have the unique ability to contrast everyday life with sprinklings of fantasy and metaphor. These ten books are some of the best examples of page-turning magical realism classics published in the 20th and 21st centuries.
What are your favorite magical realism books? Let me know in the comments below.