The 10 Best Magical Realism Books to Read in 2023

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Escape into fantastical magical realism books

Imagine baking emotions into food. Chit-chatting with ghosts on your subway ride to work. Walking around New York City with bird wings on your back. All are the sort of fantastical events you might read about in magical realism books.

First coined in 1925 by German art critic Franz Roh in reference to art, the term magic realism, or magical realism, is best known as a post-colonial style of literature that weaves mystical and mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction. It’s one of the trickier book genres to define, but if you’re looking to dip your toes into the surreal world of magical realism books (as you should!), we’re here to help.

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What is magical realism?

Magical realism is a fiction genre, but don’t confuse it with fantasy. What usually distinguishes magical realism books from fantasy novels and contemporary fantasy stories is the realism: The characters live in real, or even mundane, settings as opposed to fantastical places like the Shire or Hogwarts. In other words, The Lord of the Rings may have magic, but since it’s set in a fictional land, it’s not magical realism. Harry Potter may have magic and a real-life setting, but since most of the story is set at a fictional magic school, it’s not magical realism either.

Another distinguishing factor about the genre is the characters’ reactions—or, rather, nonreactions—to the supernatural and strange. The magic is often unexplained but understood and accepted by the characters. One character’s 200-year-long life span is as unremarkable as another character’s arthritis.

What are the origins of magical realism?

Though magical realism books are most closely associated with Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende—whose works can have political themes or serve as critiques of dictatorships or Western imperialism—writers from many cultures have taken to the genre. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami all wrote celebrated magical realism books that most critics count among the best books of all time.

Still, ask people who the father of magical realism is, and most will say Gabriel García Márquez, who popularized the genre with the release of his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. But some point to Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias, whose book El Señor Presidente was self-published back in 1946, as the inspiration for so many.

While the definitive origins remain unknown, magical realism continues to be an evolving and poetic genre with new authors adding their own spin on the category. As huge fans, we rounded up our favorite magical realism books, old and new, to infuse your life with a bit of the supernatural.

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1. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

With 26 books translated into over 42 languages and more than 77 million copies sold worldwide, Isabel Allende is the bestselling Spanish-language author of all time. I once had the honor of interviewing the Chilean writer, and she recounted how she started working on The House of the Spirits: She began her epic, multigenerational debut novel on Jan. 8, 1981, after writing a letter to her dying grandfather, who she couldn’t visit because her family was in political exile in Venezuela. (Fun fact: Allende now starts all her novels on Jan. 8.)

The story centers on the Truebe family and its clairvoyant matriarch, Clara, who’s based on Allende’s grandmother. The saga follows Clara’s husband, the power-hungry Esteban, their lovelorn daughter, Blanca, and their revolutionary granddaughter, Alba. The novel, which was published in 1982, is a sweeping and touching tale that helps us better understand the complexity of Latin America, as well as the concepts of love and family. Give it a read, and you’ll no doubt count Allende among your favorite authors.

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