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Magic within the Realism of Historical Fiction

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
July 11, 2023

First, I want to get on my soapbox about what is, and isn’t, magic realism (or magical realism). In magic realism, the narrative is written in a realistic fashion. There are elements that we would consider magical, but that are simply incorporated as part of the reality in which the characters live. Magic realism is serious, written in a literary style. It is not escapist or fantasy.

I am probably biased by my study of Latin American novels. After all, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is seen by many as the quintessential example of magic realism. In the same generation, Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar are some of the other Latin American writers known for their use of magic realism. More recently, Isabel Allende, with The House of the Spirits, and Laura Esquivel, with Like Water for Chocolate, continued the tradition.

Magic realism has struck a chord with a wide range of writers and readers. There are lots more works of historical fiction novels that I would love to include, but we’re limiting ourselves to five here.

1. Beloved by Toni Morrison

This isn’t the only novel by the Nobel Prize winner that incorporates magic realism, but it is one in which the magic is absolutely essential to the story. Sente, who escapes her enslavement, believes that a young woman whom she find on her doorstep, is the ghost of her child, whom Sente had killed when her daughter was two years old in order to keep her from being returned to slavery. Beloved is a beautiful and heart-breaking novel, my favorite of Morrison’s.

 

 

2. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich’s novel seems firmly placed in a realistic setting, where the Native Americans are in an actual historical struggle to retain their rights to their land and to their very identity. Still, Erdrich incorporates hints of magic realism, which the characters accept as part of their reality, as in Patrice’s experience of sleeping with the bear, and Thomas’s visions of beings in the sky. Erdrich also incorporates magic realism into some of her other novels.

 

 

3. The Water Dancer by Ta Nahisi-Coates

Hiram, an enslaved man, slowly becomes aware that he has a gift he calls “conduction.” Connected to water, it enables him to travel great distances, and even to use it to help others escape their captivity. Although Nahisi-Coates has written more non-fiction than fiction, his style here is beautiful and well-suited.

 

 

 

4. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Set in 1686 Amsterdam, Burton slowly tells the tale of a young woman, Nella, who has come to the city as the new bride of an older man. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the specifics of those around her, and how the city has distorted their lives. Amidst this very realistic setting, Nella encounters a mysterious woman who leaves her miniature figures that seem to predict the future.

 

 

5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gamon

 

I might be cheating a bit to include this in historical fiction, since the action in the past is the contemporary character’s memory of his childhood. Still, I love Gaiman’s imagination so much that I just had to include him. (I even introduced my grandchildren to Gamon through his books for children about a panda named Chu.) The title tells you what the magical element is, when you understand that the “ocean” of the title is usually just a pond.

 

I know that some people don’t like the idea of stories that include magic realism. Some members of my book club absolutely refuse to read anything that hints of magic. This might be especially true for historical fiction. Still, fiction seeks to reveal a truth, and that truth may be more effectively (and entertainingly) demonstrated with just a bit of magic.

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Rebecca D’Harlingue

Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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5 Comments

  1. Kathy Scott-Mejia

    I have written what I call an historical fairy tale and have said that it contains magical realism. I’ve received some pushback from this description from people who say that magical realism is limited to books with Latin American origins or sensibility, not medieval Europe. I would be interested in what other historical fiction writers think? Can I use the term magical realism to describe a story in which there are spirit animals and magical forests, but doesn’t stretch itself to the genre of historical fantasy?

    Reply
    • Rebecca D’Harlingue

      Hi Kathy! Of course, there is no absolute definition of magic realism. Although many, including myself, consider the origins of magic realism to be Latin American, as you can see from my post, I certainly don’t limit it to that.

      However, if you call your story a fairy tale, I personally would not consider that magic realism, since the story should be told in a realistic manner. Still, there is a lot of disagreement, and some people even consider Harry Potter to be magic realism. No matter how it’s defined, I think your story sounds like a fun read!

      Reply
    • Anne M Beggs

      Good question, Kathy. I wonder if the dog, 6:30, in Lessons in chemistry would be considered Magic Realism, the dog has POV vioce in the story?

      Reply
  2. Anne M Beggs

    Thank you for the insight of magic realism. It is an excellent story telling tool. I haven’t read the books you talked about – but must explore them.

    Reply

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