As I was reading Tea Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning 2011 novel The Tiger’s Wife, I began thinking of its description as a “magic realist” book.
Now, I’m generally sceptical of genre groupings for books, because it so often seems like they’re made up for the purposes of marketing rather than as a true reflection of the book itself. And one of the divisions that really irks me, is the differentiation between “fantasy” and “magic realism”.
I’m aware that many literary experts have made a case for the separation, and listed characteristics that make them different, but most of these seem to have loopholes or exceptions.
Take the idea that fantasy novels take place entirely in an imaginary world, whereas magic realism supposedly takes place in a world that resembles ours but with elements of the magical or unexplainable.
What then of books like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which is set in present-day America but includes mythic elements? And if you argue that that is mythic fantasy, then what of something like Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, which intertwines folklore, magic and real life – why is that more qualified for magic realism?
And while we’re on the topic, where then does “low fantasy” – where fantastical events happen in an otherwise normal world, like Stephen King’s The Green Mile – fit, and how is it different from magic realism?
This might be a personal bias of mine, but I often feel like the label magic realism is applied to books that are viewed to be more “literary”; like the definitive title of the genre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, or any number of Haruki Murakami novels.
Meanwhile, various versions of the fantasy label are applied to those that seem more “genre”. Which brings me to the reason I am averse to this categorisation; it often smacks of literary snobbery.
Leaving aside the question of literary merit – which is subjective anyway – why the need for a separate category like “magic realism”, when something like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi could just as easily be filed as a fantasy subgenre?
And it doesn’t help my indignation that Marquez himself has made an unflattering distinction between the two. He says: “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts.”
Yet, despite my general resistance to using “magic realism” there are the occasional books where I almost get it, where I can see why the tag of “fantasy” may sit a little uncomfortably. For various reasons, these titles gnaw and nag at me, insisting that they are magic realism after all. So here they are:
The Tiger’s Wife, set in an unnamed Balkan country and recalling a war that closely resembles Yugoslavia’s, weaves in family, cultural and national history with local folklore and myths.
And it feels almost dismissive to call the resulting tale of conflict and loss just fantasy; instead, the fantastical elements of the tale somehow come together to make it feel even more of our world.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman is a book I love and often struggle with categorising. While filled with the kind slippage into fantasy that we’re used to in his work, there’s something too disconcertingly real about his story of childhood memories – as if it doesn’t feel like fantasy because you once knew these things were true.
Every Day by David Levithan might be about a teenager who wakes up each day in a new body. Yet, so much of the heart of the story is about loneliness and connection and learning how to define oneself, that one almost takes the magical element of the story for granted.
In Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, the fantastical and the supernatural are inseparable from the mundane. The story of suppressed love alongside the Mexican Revolution imbues food with the ability to transfer emotions – which, if you think about it, starts seeming more and more plausible.
The Sum Of Our Follies by Shih-Li Kow is a Malaysian novel set in a fictional town in Perak. It brings together small-town life, local politics, and individual stories to pain a picture of Malaysia that is still underrepresented.
And through this all, there is an undercurrent of the uncanny – but with such a light touch that you’re not quite sure its there at all.