I was introduced to magical realism last year through the work of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famously the author of the award-winning novel 100 Years of Solitude. It’s a striking and impactful book… But it’s also not the one I will be talking about, at this moment. This did, however, open doorways to me, into a genre I barely knew existed. It was during the summer, as I looked for new reading material, that I delved further into magical realism and was recommended the novel by Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits. Set in Chile, where she lived for many years, this is a story which follows generations of a single family, through war, revolution, moving, birth, death, and everything in between. Not only is it beautifully written, with vibrant characters and historical events all woven together to create a stunning portrayal of family and life, it also has, with equal grace, magical realism elements.
I could never tell you what exactly has made this book one of my favourites. However, I will try to explain, for as I thought more about it, there is something very fundamental going on here, this incorporation of magical elements, which makes this story so appealing.
The very idea of magic may seem like escapism, a way for a reader to leave behind an unsatisfactory reality for the relief of the wonderful and awe-inspiring stories which we find in novels. And although escapist literature does exist, there is also something beautiful about magic, something which offers us another viewpoint into the world we live in, and will always live in.
The House of the Spirits is a perfect example of this. Because the magical elements incorporated—the child who can see spirits and predict coming events, the mermaid-like sister with green who is so stunningly beautiful, she deeply affects every man who sees her, or the giant dog, the size of a horse, who is a loyal companion—These elements are not detracting from the point of the story. These elements are not there to cause the reader to separate from reality, to forget about the world, but instead to enhance ones understanding of it.
There is a very interesting thing about magical realism, which is perhaps what I love most about it. And it is this—Every fantastic element, which may seem foreign to the reader, seem bizarre or out of place, is accepted by the characters as normal. It is no more fantastic than a human relationship, or an argument, which are the things we do accept without hesitation. And we are sucked into this world, led by the hand and shown relationships and historical events in a new light. The magical elements draw attention to important characters, events and places. In The house of the Spirits, one of the main characters, Clara the clairvoyant, speaks to and communes with spirits throughout the novel. This is used to deepen her character, it causes her deep guilt when she senses a death but cannot prevent it, it causes her distance from those she interacts with in the physical world, her seeming mental absence—These are things we do understand. Guilt, loneliness, those are emotions we have all faced in our own lives. The only difference, and I would say the true beauty of magical realism, is that these human experiences are shed even greater light, reached through an unexpected route which we have not seen before, have not grown so accustomed to that it loses its value.
Salmon Rushdie, a British author who incorporates elements of magical realism in his novels, said this in an interview about magical realism:
“The question is: “What does truth mean in fiction?” Because of course the first premise of fiction is that it’s not true, that the story does not record events that took place. These people didn’t exist. These things did not happen. And that’s the going in point of a novel. So the novel tells you flat out at the beginning that it’s untruthful. But then so what do we mean then by “truth in literature?” And clearly what we mean is human truth, not photographic, journalistic, recorded truth, but the truth we recognize as human beings. About how we are with each other, how we deal with each other, what are our strengths and our weaknesses, how we interact and what is the meaning of our lives?”
This is exactly why magical realism is so impactful, and why it has spread world wide. It sheds light on something which is deeply human, incorporating magical elements into a story which is still very real. Because the people in The House of the Spirits, the problems which plague the country, the cruel characters who kill and hate, the kind characters who protect and sacrifice, there is nothing supernatural or magic about that. These truths about humanity are then framed in a world which is unique from ours, to illustrate them in new ways which we don’t expect. It grabs our attention, and holds it, because although we may initially be attracted on a superficial level, you are soon drawn into the intricacies and layers of the magic, and the real, and which is which.
The House of the Spirits is a stunning book, one which has changed how I approach the world, writing, myself. Magical realism is something which allows me a deeper understanding of the world, why we act how we act, or say what we say. And to me, this makes it very beautiful.