Literature’s most underrated genre, or arguably sub-genre, is magical realism. It does what it says on the tin: magical, fairytale happenings in a realistic setting. Since most of our love for literature began with the tales of Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and other enchanted stories, it seems a shame that we tend to stray from such Literature as we age. With a world of rational, technological and science-driven focus, we could all do with a little escapism from time to time.
Adult fairytales have a dark, often spooky makeover from their early years, but still include the typical features of childhood stories: magical creatures, evil villains, spine-tingling warnings, spells, beautiful heroins and sometimes even handsome princes (though the rise of feminist literature has prevented them from becoming a pre-requisite).
The fairy godmother of magical realism (in English) is the late British author, Angela Carter. Inspired by Latin-American writers, notably Isabel Allende, Carter brought this genre, beloved by many abroad, to gritty, 1980s England. Embracing sexual libertarianism, the grotesque, obscure and pantomime farce, Carter shimmied into the literary world, winning awards and recognition galore.
From manic scientists in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), ogre-like uncles, orphans and incest in The Magic Toyshop (1967), mysteriously winged humans born from eggs in Nights at the Circus (1984) or incest, twins, darkness and crime in Love (1971), Carter’s tales are a feast for the senses. They will keep you on the edge of your seat, gape in disbelief and wrinkle your nose in disgust. This author is a master of mixing low cultures, characters and base humour and actions with a touch of magic and enchantment, sending important messages about the class culture in Britain at the time of writing and righting snobbery for good.
From decades ago, to the present, Helen Oyeyemi is storming the literary charts with her intriguingly dark and delicious tales of mischievous spirits and cursed characters. Another Brit, who began writing in High School, Oyeyemi’s writing draws on various cultures’ myths, legends and superstitions to create haunting fiction. With haunted houses who have minds of their own and swallow beautiful, young girls into the depths of their secret cellars in White is for Witching (2009), to beautiful stepchildren and jealous stepmothers in Boy, Snow, Bird (2014), fairytales have never been better.
Like Carter, Allende and the Brothers Grimm before her, Helen uses these magical stories as didactic tales, addressing issues facing the modern world today, or in the past. These include racism due to skin colour and eating disorders, presented as contemporary curses.
Neil Gaiman is a name that instantly comes to mind when considering fairytales for adults. His prose is modern and fresh, with less of the mysterious warnings of doom that one associates with classical fairytales. Scared of spiders? Prepare for your skin to crawl with his witty novel Anansi Boys (2005), a coming of age tale of a misfortunate son known as Fat Charlie, whose fun-loving father is the Spider God, Anansi. Intrigue and mystery are abound in Neverwhere (1996), a tale of a young man who becomes invisible after meeting a bleeding girl on the street, late one night; a girl on a mission, leading a murder mystery into the slaughter of her family.
For something magical, yet totally different, Salman Rushdie is the man to read. His unique blend of East meets West is brought about by his Indian heritage, and British residing. Rushdie brings the exotic, chaotic, alluring aromas of India to the grey, concrete, conservative climate of 1980s Britain. His semi-biographical work draws the reader into his own wonderment at his vibrant, Indian roots. Do not miss his, perhaps greatest novel Midnight’s Children (1981), which centres around the moment of India’s independence from British colonialism. In this frolicking tale, all children born within a few hours of that particular event are enchanted or, as some may view it, cursed, with untameable powers that shape the course of their lives. Rushdie’s meaty novel is full of unusual, yet loveable and relatable characters, with a bit of a twist!
Other notable novels in the magical realism category include:
Ali Shaw, The Girl with Glass Feet (2010)
Chris Adrian, The Great Night (2011)
William Goldman, The Princess Bride (1973) (don’t just see the movie, read the book too!)
and Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (2011).
Now: grab a blanket, some tissues and a night-light in preparation for weird and wonderful dreams, and get turning those pages for some R-rated, magical escapism!