The best magical realism books

40 authors have picked their favorite books about magicical realism and why they recommend each book.

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The Woman Warrior

By Maxine Hong Kingston,

Book cover of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Kingston’s classic opens with one of the best first lines of all time: You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” When I teach this book in my memoir writing classes, my students and I spend a long time discussing the implication of this first sentence—what it means for Kingston’s work, but also what it means for us, as memoirists, to tell stories we’ve been forbidden, in some way, to tell. The beating heart of this memoir is the idea that making art—literary or otherwise—is the process of saving your own life.     


Who am I?

I am a reader, writer, and professor specializing in memoir writing. I think every single person has a fascinating life. But, when writing it down, it can be difficult to find a narrative structure that allows the story to feel as unique as the human being writing it. I am drawn to memoirs that have fresh, creative ways of organizing their material—memoirs that go beyond or subvert the conventional, straightforward, chronological approach. After all, our memories are often scattered, fragmented, interrupted, non-linear, or just bizarre; memoirs that capture not only the person’s lived experience but also the messiness of memory itself feel more powerful and true to me. 


I wrote...

Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

By Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman,

Book cover of Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

What is my book about?

When aspiring violinist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman lands a job with a professional ensemble in New York City, she imagines she has achieved her lifelong dream. But the ensemble proves to be a sham. When the group “performs,” the microphones are never on. Instead, the music blares from a CD. The mastermind behind this scheme is a peculiar and mysterious figure known as The Composer, who is gaslighting his audiences with music that sounds suspiciously like the Titanic movie soundtrack. On tour with his chaotic ensemble, Hindman spirals into crises of identity and disillusionment as she “plays” for audiences genuinely moved by the performance, unable to differentiate real from fake.

Sounds Like Titanic is a surreal, often hilarious coming-of-age story. Written with precise, candid prose and sharp insight into ambition and gender.

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Piranesi

Clarke’s debut, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is grand storytelling on the scale of Tolstoy or Dumas. In contrast, Piranesi, Clarke’s second novel, is under 300 pages and has a small cast. Yet in many ways, the mysterious and deeply allegorical Piranesi is just as big as its predecessor. In Piranesi, the title character chronicles the exploration of an infinite house, filled with crumbling statues, artifacts from past inhabitants, and even an entire ocean that occasionally swells from the bottom floor and into the halls and rooms above. I get the sense that Piranesi rewards readers who explore its pages a second time, and I look forward to digging back in.


Who am I?

I grew up addicted to portal stories, where fantastical lands full of magic and adventure are accessible from our mundane world if you just know where to look. Stories like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland, and The Chronicles of Narnia. My first novel, The Between, is a portal story like those but written more for adults–at least, for adults who are still young at heart. If you, too, like to daydream about slipping from your work cubicle into someplace strange and weird–and perhaps a little dangerous–here are books I think you might love.


I wrote...

The Between

By Ryan Leslie,

Book cover of The Between

What is my book about?

While landscaping his backyard, ever-conscientious Paul Prentice discovers an iron door buried in the soil. His childhood friend and perpetual source of mischief, Jay Lightsey, pushes them to explore what's beneath. When the door slams shut above them, Paul and Jay are trapped in a between-worlds place of Escher-like rooms and horror story monsters, all with a mysterious connection to a command-line, dungeon explorer computer game from the early '80s called The Between.

Paul and Jay find themselves filling roles in a story that seems to play out over and over again. But in this world, where their roles warp their minds, the biggest threat to survival may not be the Koŝmaro, risen from the Between's depths to hunt them; the biggest danger may be each other.

Get in Trouble

By Kelly Link,

Book cover of Get in Trouble: Stories

I love reading novels and stories that make me wish I’d written them, and this collection by Kelly Link made me wish that time and time again. This book also introduced me to the concept of fabulism, a form of magical realism where elements of the fantastic occur in everyday settings, which is something I find compelling both as a reader and as a writer. Link combines humor, fantasy, magical realism, and more than a touch of horror to create a collection of stories that is unique, weird, and wonderful. 


Who am I?

I’ve always enjoyed short story collections. Starting with Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, I became a fan of the short form. And as a burgeoning writer, writing short stories was the best way for me to learn the craft of storytelling. While I started out writing supernatural horror, I gradually found myself combining horror, fantasy, and science fiction with dark comedy and social satire, creating a blend of genres. Several of the short story collections I recommend here were instrumental in my evolution as a short story writer and inspired a number of the stories in my latest collection, Lost Creatures.


I wrote...

Lost Creatures: Stories

By S.G. Browne,

Book cover of Lost Creatures: Stories

What is my book about?

A family of luck poachers receives a phone call that sets them off in the hopes of reversing their bad fortune. At a singles mixer for chemical elements, a luminous-yet-jaded Neon looks for love, or at least a one-night exothermic reaction. When blue skies turn gray and the daikaiju siren blares, the ten-year-old daughter of the local weatherman discovers her destiny. And washed-up evildoers live out their meaningless lives at a retirement home for villains—you never know when someone might turn the swimming pool into a shark pit. Or bring a death ray to Taco Tuesday.

Lost Creatures contains fourteen tales that blend fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, dark comedy, and social satire.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

By Toshikazu Kawaguchi,

Book cover of Before the Coffee Gets Cold

There are some offbeat reasons I picked this book, and one is that if you’re around the Indian Summer age you might have got into a reading rut, and it’s an intriguing rut-breaker, nicely translated but evoking a different world and way of thinking. The main reason, though, is, indirectly, baggage, the releasing of. The premise of the novel allows patrons of the café to go back in time to a previous meeting, and say what they wish they’d said at the time. It won’t change events, and they can stay only until their coffee in real time gets cold. As a perspective twister, it’s unique.  


Who am I?

I’ve been a columnist in a national magazine, book reviewer on a daily newspaper, journalist on a small rural paper, commercial blogger for hire, copy-editor, and critiquer, usually alongside more conventional roles in the not entirely thrilling world of corporate finance. In my fifties, I took a belated gap year courtesy of a good redundancy package and started writing full-time under a couple of different names, mainly EJ Lamprey but here as Clarissa. The gap year never really ended . . . At the heart of all my books is the exuberant celebration of finding in autumn the best season of our lives.


I wrote...

The Christmas Caper

By E.J. Lamprey,

Book cover of The Christmas Caper

What is my book about?

Being pretty much retired, well-off, active, lively, sociable, a frequent traveler, and based at an age-friendly community for similar free spirits in lovely Scotland, had been great for Edge and her friends: and then along came Covid19. After months of Katryn's draconian restrictions, with Christmas 2020 closing in, it wasn't surprising that boredom was driving the neighbors nuts. Are they imagining things, though, or was there really something off-kilter at Grasshopper Lawns?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

By Neil Gaiman, Elise Hurst (illustrator),

Book cover of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The main character is an introverted young boy whose family struggles in his impoverished neighborhood, and he meets an older girl who shares the existence of a local “hellmouth” that she tames using intuitive magic. This book echoes why I’m a diehard Buffy the Vampire Slayer (television show) fan—it takes reality and adds a vortex of supernatural to the already difficult experience of growing up. Gaiman masterfully tells an emotional story, amplifying the feelings of safety and anxiety young people experience as they navigate their need to belong, decipher life, and deal with the family they’re born into. Only 171 pages, it is beautifully plotted with deep, connective meanings, imaginative dilemmas made of the supernatural, and poignant self-discovery.


Who am I?

Like most writers, I am extremely interested in the “what if” factor. What if food ingredients could make a person feel specific emotions? What if drinking from a spring in the woods could give you a superpower? What if fairies really do take care of and grow all plants and trees in the world? I love to read and write about ordinary people, living everyday life, who encounter threads of magic. Influenced by reading books in the genre of “magical realism,” I love to explore how a dab of magic can be used in realistic fiction to emotionally affect the characters and story arc.


I wrote...

The Fairies of Turtle Creek

By Jill K. Sayre,

Book cover of The Fairies of Turtle Creek

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old Claire is a science-minded girl who has deep concerns about her brother who is away fighting in the Iraq War. When her quirky and estranged grandmother comes to live with her, Claire is even more uneasy—especially since the elderly woman believes in fairies. In fact, they are nearly all she talks about. However, it's through Grandma Faye's stories of being a thirteen-year-old in Dallas, Texas in the 1920s that teaches Claire about love, growing up, and the importance of believing in things only seen with her heart.

Pet

By Akwaeke Emezi,

Book cover of Pet

Chibundu Onuzo’s debut novel PET is an exciting introduction to one of literature’s most innovative voices. PET is a YA novel set in the fictional city of Lucille. The adults tell the children there are no more monsters, but best friends Jam and Redemption learn otherwise. The novel doesn’t flinch from big issues—identity, abuse, and police brutality. The book is so unique it’s hard to classify it.


Who am I?

I grew up in Uganda and Kenya, and when I moved to the United States, I felt separated from myself. Learning how to be American was exhausting and so I disappeared into books. I’m now more settled, but I still travel through fiction. These days, I am reading fiction by African women. You should be, too! There is so much stunning literature out there. These five books are just the beginning, but they are novels I can’t stop thinking about.


I wrote...

Wait for God to Notice

By Sari Fordham,

Book cover of Wait for God to Notice

What is my book about?

Wait for God to Notice is a memoir about growing up in Uganda. It is also a memoir about mothers and daughters and about how children both know and don’t know their parents. As teens, Fordham and her sister, Sonja, consider their mother overly cautious. After their mother dies of cancer, the author begins to wonder who her mother really was. As she recalls her childhood in Uganda―the way her mother killed snakes, sweet-talked soldiers, and sold goods on the black market―Fordham understands that the legacy her mother left her daughters is one of courage and capability.

The Book of Form and Emptiness

By Ruth Ozeki,

Book cover of The Book of Form and Emptiness

Within these pages, Ruth Ozeki creates a world like no other. The Book of Form and Emptiness is thought-provoking, compelling, and thoroughly original. This story took me places I’ve never been before, and I was awestruck throughout the journey. Exploring loss, bereavement, mental illness, and Zen Buddhism, this is a multi-layered, insightful, and deeply spiritual tale. One that is unforgettable. Significantly, it is also a novel that celebrates books and libraries, two of my favorite things, with the book itself as a protagonist. What could be better?


Who am I?

I have always been a seeker, fascinated by all cultures, philosophies, and spiritual perspectives. Although the concept is often different—for some, it’s a place of refuge, feeling safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble; for others, it’s a state of being, an inner peace, I’ve found that the search for sanctuary—safe-haven—elsewhere—has ancient roots and contemporary reverberations. My novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, further heightened my interest in this subject, for my protagonist, Esther Grünspan, both deeply wounded and unsafe, was compelled to seek sanctuary. As a first-time novelist with an 18-year journey to publication, I fully immersed myself in this topic’s study and comprehension.


I wrote...

Guesthouse for Ganesha

By Judith Teitelman,

Book cover of Guesthouse for Ganesha

What is my book about?

Weaving Eastern beliefs and perspectives with Western realities and pragmatism, Guesthouse for Ganesha is a tale of love, loss, and spirit reclaimed.

In 1923, 17-year-old Esther Grünspan arrives in Köln “with a hardened heart as her sole luggage,” Thus begins a 22-year journey, woven against the backdrops of the European Holocaust and Hindu Kali Yuga (“Age of Darkness”), in search of sanctuary. Throughout her travails, Esther relies on her masterful tailoring skills to help mask her Jewish heritage, navigate war-torn Europe, and emigrate to India. Her traveling companion and the novel’s narrator is Ganesha, the beloved elephant-headed Hindu God. Impressed by Esther’s fortitude and relentless determination, born of her deep―though unconscious―understanding of the meaning of love, Ganesha conveys her journey with compassion, insight, and poetry.

Melmoth

By Sarah Perry,

Book cover of Melmoth

My favorite thing about magical realism is that it is often used to discuss social and cultural issues, colonialism, the powerful and elite, environmental issues, racism, war, homophobia, genocide, and more. It can also be used to talk about social issues that are equally as important but maybe not as heavy. That’s why I love Melmoth by Sarah Perry – because magical realism is used to cover a gambit of social and historical issues. 

In the novel, Perry focuses on a mythical figure called Melmoth the Witness who preys upon people in the darkest moments of their lives. Through this mythical figure, Perry discusses everything from Nazi Germany to fear, sins, loneliness, and self-loathing with a magical lens. I loved the grit and darkness of this magical realism story and I know you will too.


Who am I?

Magical realism was created by Latin American writers, and I’m proud to continue the tradition today. I grew up reading magical stories – mostly fantasy – but there was always something missing in those books, that sense of reality that I experienced every day of my life thanks to my Mixed Latinx heritage. When I discovered magical realism, I felt at home. I’ve been studying magical realism since I was 21, so it comes as no surprise that most of the creative writing I do fall into the magical realism genre. I love helping others discover the beauty of magical realism because it is a phenomenal genre that helps readers understand their reality through magic. 


I wrote...

Half Outlaw

By Alex Temblador,

Book cover of Half Outlaw

What is my book about?

After the tragic death of her parents when she was just four years old, Raqi is sent to live with her uncle Dodge in Escondido, California. Taking after her Mexican father, Raqi immediately faces hostility from the members of Dodge's all-white, 1 percenter motorcycle club, the Lawless, and from her uncle himself. As soon as she can, she leaves the violence and bigotry behind and doesn't look back.

Years later, Raqi is a successful partner at a law firm in Los Angeles. She gets a call from Billy, the leader of the Lawless. Dodge is dead, and Billy wants her to go on the Grieving Ride. There is no way Raqi would ever attend, except for one thing: Billy promises to give her the address of her grandfather if she goes.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

By F. Scott Fitzgerald,

Book cover of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Benjamin Button was a tiny mystery who was born unaccountably different (much like my own Bonaventure Arrow). I love the way Fitzgerald makes time run backward as Benjamin Button lives his life in reverse going from an infant resembling a seventy-year-old man to a young child whose mind is failing, to a small being who’s forgotten his remarkable life. This story allows readers to ponder the vast journey that takes place in every life. 


Who am I?

I grew up in northern Wisconsin, where a love of books set my imagination on fire as I waited out the long, cold winters. Southern writers were my favorites because they took me from the plains of my northern home to a landscape vined in lushness, where people had names like Scout, Calpurnia, and Battle Fairchild; where places had names like Yoknapatawpha, and where a streetcar was named Desire. I got lost in that place of different constellations with its mint julep and velvet evenings, and its readiness to accept magic. It wasn’t until my children were grown that I finally earned bachelor's and master’s degrees, and determined that I would be a writer.

I wrote...

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

By Rita Leganski,

Book cover of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

What is my book about?

Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead. No one knew that his silence was filled with resonance—a miraculous gift of rarefied hearing that encompasses the Universe of Every Single Sound. He can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops. Then one day he hears the voice of his father, who’d been shot dead by a crazy man known only as the Wanderer before Bonaventure was even born. This special little boy would find the key to buried mysteries and soothe a chorus of family secrets that were clamoring to be healed.

The House of the Spirits

By Isabel Allende,

Book cover of The House of the Spirits

I read Isabelle Allende’s first book against my will, having lost a bet with my mother at seventeen, and it continues to be one of my favorite books ever. A generational saga set in the revolutionary world of post-colonial Chile, the story begins with young Clara del Valle, whose eyes are open to the spectral world. She’s able to predict the future, and the horrifying realities of that gift almost destroy her. 

This was one of the stories that made me interested in spiritual realism in literature, and it was a huge inspiration for several of my own works. And whenever my mom complains that I need to stop writing so much about witches, werewolves, and ghosts, I remind her of the day she forced me to read her favorite historical fiction novel.


Who am I?

As a reader, I’m obsessed with strong female characters. In most books, even the strongest women play second fiddle to the men. Whether to fit into society or attract men, most women will swallow their light to be less than. My frustration with this outcome of our patriarchal culture is the main reason most of my protagonists are women. I want to hear their voices in everything I write, undiluted, untempered, and unapologetic. It so happens my favorite genre is the supernatural, and the women on this list have each dazzled and inspired me to write about the powerful feminine in all my books.

I wrote...

A Perfect Night

By Joseph Stone,

Book cover of A Perfect Night

What is my book about?

Frances Tarantino has felt her mother's spirit by her side ever since the woman's tragic death. Fran's mother sends beautiful ladybugs to land on her dress whenever she feels lonely or afraid. And on those rare occasions when Fran misbehaves, her mother disciplines her. As Fran falls in love for the first time, she learns how dangerous a parent's discipline can be.

Fran's grand aunt, Aurora Ciconne, vowed never to take another husband when she became widowed at twenty-two. And now, at fifty-eight, Aurora insists she does not need a man. But in secret, she has always been a bride. When Fran develops their family's gift of sight, Aurora searches for a way to free them both from the diabolical enslavement they can speak of to no one else.

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