Magical Realism: the near reaches of the fantasy kingdom
I’m a reader and writer of magical realism, but a lot of people are much less sure about what magical realism is compared to fantasy. If you say you read fantasy novels, most people think of amazing kingdoms and creatures, the weird and the wonderful, epic journeys, herculean tasks, individual challenges amid great battles. Characters are always richly drawn and have intense and dramatic lives. There is always so much at stake, usually life and death. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!
Magical realism is much less exotic in many ways, largely because the imagination required of the reader is much more specific and narrowly focused. Magical realism is, to steal a cliché, exactly what it says on the tin: the real world seen through a magical lens. For some writers like Ben Aaronovitch and Sarah Addison Allen that means actual magic occurring naturally in the real world (people or objects with extraordinary abilities, but who also drive cars and wear make up, for example), and for others of us like Alice Sebold, Alice Hoffmann and myself, it has a more spiritual twist, a borrowing from what some might call the paranormal or the supernatural. I once noted that the magical realist aspects in my novels “do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first, they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.”
Of course, labelling a book as a specific genre creates all sorts of problems because the wonderful thing about fiction is that much of it is in the eye of the beholder/reader. I write magical realism because I suspect that there is more to this world than meets that eye, and I want to explore the possibility that all is not quite what it seems. But to those mighty organisers of the virtual shelves at Amazon, my interest in ghosts is what they think of as horror, and so if you go looking for some of my books you’ll find them in the horror category,which is not really a fair reflection of what I write at all!
I loved writing my novel Equilibrium, which Elaine is reviewing. It is the story of two poverty-stricken sisters with a stage mediumship act in Edwardian London who must revisit not only their own pasts but also that of an aristocratic woman who wants to find out how her brother has died. They all have secrets from each other and are not quite ready to share, yet if they are to move on they must face up to their pasts and the choices they made. The Edwardian period is fascinating because in terms of the history of our modern lives, it’s the period when people were just about to find out how much life could change, because of war, technology, and the growing movement for women to become equal to men. But this isn’t just a historical novel. It’s also a magical realist novel that explores spirituality and how science tries to explain the paranormal. For this was a time when all the scientific discoveries of the Victorian era were starting to change people’s daily lives and the rapid pace of social change made people feel uneasy. Spiritual faith – religiously traditional or otherwise – gave continuity.
Spiritualism, mediums and ghosts, and particularly the conflict between science and faith, between the so-called ‘rational’ view of a temporary physical existence and the belief that we continue in some form after death, are all rich areas to explore in fiction. When people consult a medium – whether genuine or fake – to communicate with a spirit, they are inviting into their lives a person who crosses from their public into their private life to communicate the most intimate of knowledge, and they permit the medium to access their very personal grief for the person who has died. That was an extraordinary thing to do in the mostly buttoned-up Edwardian era, but in our present day, when we all chatter on about the most trivial aspects of our lives in the most public of spaces, on mobile phones and social media, the very idea of privacy seems to be fading before our eyes.
This might all seem a lot more ‘realism’ than ‘magical’ and I suppose that’s the main difference to fantasy. Magical realist novelists perhaps inhabit the nearest corner of the fantasy kingdom, the nearest to reality, and they bring the ‘abnormal’ right into the everyday world. Even though we magical realist authors often write about magic and the supernatural, we do so in a way that makes it seem as normal as opening a tin of baked beans. For where much of a fantasy world is innovative, distant and extraordinary, much of a magical realist world is real and everyday, whether that everyday is now or 100 years ago.
Evie Woolmore has been writing and ghost-writing fiction for almost twenty years. To find out more about her novels Equilibrium, Rising Up and The Salt Factory, and get links to buy them, visit her website: allonymbooks.com/evie-woolmore/
Evie Woolmore is a conjuress of magical realism. Her novels infuse historical settings with an otherworldly quality. Their evocative atmospheres blur boundaries between the real and the imaginary, or whatever passes for real and imaginary…
An experienced writer and editor, Evie has been writing fiction and non-fiction for twenty years. Having written books for other people, she also finds time to write books for herself. She has lived here, there and everywhere, but finds that imagination travels well. She enjoys publishing independently, and focuses her contribution to the indie community through reviewing other indie books, particularly those in a similar genre to her own.
How to get in touch with Evie: