The terms “magical” and “realism” seem antithetical, don’t they? If there’s magic involved, isn’t it fantasy? How can it be realism if there are magical elements in the story?
The literary movement of magical realism began with Latin American authors, and it has often been used by them as a genre of political subversion. The fantastic and magical elements of the story are presented as normal aspects of everyday life, thus putting the standard structure of reality into question; this allowed authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende to question the political regimes of their day without being instantly labeled as dissidents. Essentially, magical realism allowed these authors to show or even suggest an alternative to an accepted or established political reality.
As it diversified from the Latin American authors, the genre has taken on additional qualities, adding surrealism, with its irrational juxtapositions and combinations, and fabulism, incorporating fables and myths into a contemporary setting. Unlike fantasy or science fiction, which set up worlds separate from our own, authors of magical realism simply introduce into our world some slight distortion that forces the reader to question what is real and opens up additional avenues for our minds to ponder. It can be quirky and fanciful or fraught with significance, but the specific characteristic that makes it magical realism is the author’s refusal to define which elements are real and which are fantastical. It is for the reader to decide.
Some original classics would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez; Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel; and The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende. Other more contemporary examples include Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami; most titles by Alice Hoffman; The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton; and you could also include such offbeat books as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, by Robin Sloan.
Here’s the thing about recommending books containing magical realism: You have to be sure that your readers understand what it is and welcome its inclusion in the story, because they will either be delighted by it or they will be massively irritated. I am a person who has always enjoyed magical realism, and even I have a tolerance point beyond which I say to the author, “You’ve gone too far!” My breaking point, and it may be this way for others, is when the author begins to “fix” parts of the story as it unfolds by simply making things magical, instead of addressing the situation as it demands. When it is used as a crutch instead of as a delightful element or purposeful metaphor, that’s when magical realism can get out of hand.
All this has led up to my current reading, which is the trilogy about a French chocolate-maker who lets the wind dictate her destination in life.
Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, is a quintessential example of magical realism. It is especially potent because of the contrasts between the rural, parochial, cautious inhabitants of Lansquenet-sur-Tannes versus the mother and daughter who are swept into town with not only an ability but almost a mandate to upend everything traditional and narrow about the townspeople and insert some charm and whimsicality into their environs by opening a chocolate shop.
I had seen the movie version of this book several times, and so I felt I could dispense with reading it and move directly to the sequel, but it turned out I was wrong—the book has essential similarities, but also some crucial differences. So I actually ended up reading this trilogy in 2-1-3 order, which skewed my viewpoint of the books somewhat.
The first book is a nearly unalloyed delight. Using the device of injecting this footloose, free-spirited, pagan, magical woman into the humdrum life of a traditional French Catholic town allows the author to examine issues of tolerance and acceptance, religion, relationships, happiness, and even death in a serious but lighthearted manner. The touches of magic only serve to highlight these issues and keep the book from becoming too intense (and the constant talk of chocolate will have you noshing with one hand while you hold the book with the other).
The sequel, The Girl with No Shadow, on the other hand, was a puzzle to me. It’s four years later, and it’s clear that Vianne is fearful about something, though it’s hard to tell what or why. She and Anouk have assumed new names, their spirits have dwindled, and I couldn’t figure out how we got from the mostly upbeat Vianne at the end of the first book to the weirdly passive, unhappy, and self-deluding widow living in Paris at the beginning of the second. I became impatient at times with the levels of apprehension and timidity exhibited by Yanne, the name under which she now masquerades. She has developed a panicky need to be “normal,” supposedly for the sake of her daughters, that has left her open to the machinations of the malevolent trickster, Zozie, who shows up and essentially tries to steal Vianne’s life (and elder daughter) out from under her.
The story examines the debilitating effects of fear and the dangers to which it can expose us if we let it rule our lives. It also examines the sometimes desperate choices we make to obtain the things we need.
Even though she introduces some wonderful elements into the story, I so disliked the character of Zozie that it was hard to read about her triumphs and the way she insinuated herself into the lives all around Vianne. Ultimately I liked the book, but felt that it was a vehicle, a second designed to get you to the third—a long episode, if you will, to transition Vianne out of her fearfulness and back to embracing life.
I also felt that in this book, the author crossed that fine line from magical realism into manipulation. There was too much solving of problems with the flick of a finger or the drawing of a symbol, combined with an inadequate explanation of what magic was being sourced to do so.
I’m going to leave the discussion of the third book, Peaches for Father Francis, to a subsequent post, because it weirdly melded with a new young adult novel I picked up a couple of weeks later, and I want to put the two together. For now, suffice it to say that the third book documents a return to Lansquenet and also to the original spirit and intentions of Vianne.
My computer hard drive failed on Thursday, so instead of posting yesterday, I hauled it to the repair shop, where they can hopefully retrieve my precious data and then install a new robust drive. Meanwhile, I am continuing to read and note my thoughts (longhand! haven’t done that in a few decades), and once the computer is back and I transcribe, new reviews will appear. (I am currently typing two-fingered on my Kindle, which is not ideal.) Since I am gearing up for my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA in April, you can expect some great brand new YA reviews. Stay tuned…
As a regular feature here on the blog, I’d like to furnish an image of someone reading, and ask you what books you are enjoying. Please leave a comment and tell me what you’re reading this week!
There are, particularly in the fairy tale tradition, many stories of children who disappear, some never to return, while others go away for awhile and come back but are never quite the same. Taking their cue from that old chestnut “Rip Van Winkle” are such series as the Chronicles of Narnia (a door at the back of the wardrobe), Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld (a mirror in the study), and others that perpetuate stories of strange worlds accessed by odd little doors and windows, burrows and mirrors that lead somewhere….
But finally, in Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, we have the bringing together of a group of “the returned” to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school run by a schoolmistress who went away, herself, to another world when young and therefore can empathize with their plight, stranded back in this one. Bewildered parents try to get their blessedly restored children to behave as they used to, but the children spend all their time longing to go back to the worlds where they finally felt at home, and the desperate parents send them to Eleanor, hoping for a miracle. But they may not get the one they’re wishing for….
This book is truly magical. Furthermore, the writing, the descriptions, the characters, and the mystery are all both lyrical and inspired. And although the description sounds old-fashioned, the telling of it is anything but: It’s a touching story about unconditional love.
The first thing I did as soon as I finished this book (which didn’t take long—the books in this series are novella-length) is to immediately read the next, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. That one turned out to be a prequel, since it details what happened to two of the characters (twin girls) from Every Heart A Doorway, immediately before that book started. Jack and Jill’s sterile background and their sojourn in the forbidding world of the moors dovetailed nicely into the first story and was such a satisfying explanation of their behavior in that book. The essence of this one is that there is no one way to be a girl, and there is no one way to love.
The third tale, Beneath the Sugar Sky, was as much a tiny jewel-like masterpiece as the other two, but it was both everything I was expecting and nothing like what I thought it would be, which is the best that you can wish from a book.
We meet characters from the first two stories—Christopher, who longs to return to his love, the Skeleton Girl, in a world best compared to an eternal celebratory Dia de los Muertos; Kade, who is preparing to be Aunt Eleanor’s successor at the Home for Wayward Children; and Nadya, who has been at the school going on five years but hasn’t yet given up and gone home. We also meet some new characters: Cora, the fat girl and champion swimmer, who yearns to return to the world where she was a mermaid with blue and green hair who never had to leave her element, the water; and Rini, who bursts upon the teens at the school like a revelation of what a Nonsense world can produce, Rini with her candy corn eyes and naïveté, in search of her mother, Sumi. This cast accompanies Rini across several worlds, being careful not to become stuck in any of them, intending to help Rini but also secretly hoping to find their several ways back to their own doorways. This book contains a powerful message about loving yourself, no matter your shape, size, or individual peculiarities.
The fourth book, In An Absent Dream, which was just released January 9th, is being confusingly billed on its flap as “a stand-alone tale in the award-winning Wayward Children series.” Although this is misleading (it is definitely a part of the series), if you read the first book and then jumped immediately to the fourth, you would still feel yourself firmly situated, since it cites nothing and includes no one from books two or three, but does solve a mystery presented in the first book.
Katherine Lundy is only six years old when she realizes that her entire life has already been planned out for her. Her father is the principal of her school, which ensures she has no friends; left to her own devices, she sees herself continuing on, quiet, polite, studious. She will sit in her room by herself, reading her books, until one day maybe she will become a librarian and then a wife and mother, as is expected by her family. But even at six, Katherine knows this isn’t the life she wants, and one day, she finds a door, her door, to somewhere she can be herself. (My favorite portal yet, btw.)
It’s a wonderful, evocative, and bittersweet chapter to this ongoing story; once again McGuire provides the language pictures to carry the reader completely into the worlds she paints. I couldn’t put it down, and I strongly suspect I will re-read this series more than once. McGuire has really struck a nerve with the idea that for those who feel like misfits in their own lives, there may exist doorways into places where they feel completely themselves, where they are loved, wanted, needed, where they belong. The yearning to get there lives with some people their whole lives, but in McGuire’s books, some of the people actually get to experience this coming home, for a little while—or, for a lucky few, forever.
“A survey of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan libraries showed that half the patrons of the public library had come to it simply for a good book to read. Yet patrons who come to the library are seldom accosted by a librarian who has thought enough of books to read very many of them, or if [s]he has read extensively, cares enough to recommend books to others searching for good reading. The library profession hopes to improve its image and seems to feel this can be done by proof of efficiency. Those students who enter the library profession because they love books and wish to work with people soon discover they are being trained for technical services, and become bored and disillusioned. If we continue to confine ourselves to administering collections, to making information and materials available, to answering questions but remaining unconcerned for the individual, then we should be honest enough to admit we are technicians, cease insisting on professional status, disown the bastard YA, and catch up with our work! I say that when the time comes that library schools train readers’ advisors as well as technicians; when administrators make the promotion of reading as important as the informational services; when staff members render creative professional service to individuals; then we shall not have to worry about our image.”
—Margaret A. Edwards
The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts, 1969
As I was driving along the other day,
I found myself behind someone whose car had a personalized license plate that read “STREEL.” This is a place-name (and something more) in a large and dramatic story I haven’t thought about in a long while, and it made me reflect about everything that goes into the writing of an epic fantasy. We have rich examples of this subgenre, both in book and visual form, with Tolkien’s masterpieces on the large screen and Game of Thrones on the small one, as well as recent epic stories such as Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer or N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. But what, exactly, keeps so many mesmerized by this story form?
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, by creating characters who are people with a common nature, regular folk like us; perhaps a bit naïve, retaining a certain innocence of character. The world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness, but it can’t be too obviously fictional; in fact, it needs, despite all of its anomalies, to feel real to the reader. We as readers step into it. We don’t call it up or create it, but we do commit to it, believe it, and go with it.
There must be an essential conflict in fantasy. It can vary in its nature, but it is usually a keen sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a driving necessity to act to preserve good and defeat evil. That premise leads directly to the quest. It may be a spiritual or religious undertaking, with a protagonist fated to pursue it, so it is a serious undertaking, that includes danger, struggle, willpower, and perseverance. And since a quest is undertaken only when the well being of a society is threatened, the quest is often pursued to restore that society’s original well being. So perhaps a final element of the epic saga is (in some sense) a happy ending?
The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down (“you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?”), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story. But Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn’t complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between. It is this saga that the powerful word “streel” on the license plate summoned up for me.
The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as “Play-with-the-Children,” the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.
Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga’s destiny to rise to greatness again; and a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.
Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams’s story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It’s also an enthralling read!
The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek’s story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.
Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a “bed-slave”) that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia’s naiveté and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.
Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme—the existence and morality of slavery—that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable, and the language is rich.
By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be consistently cheery…
Just as there are “crossover” books written for adults but both suitable for and interesting to teens (see “Alex Awards“), there are also some teen books that are equally readable by adults. In fact, for some of them, it’s a shame that they have been marketed and sold as a Young Adult title, because they deserve to be widely read.
One of these is the historical fiction book Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
The book starts out a little confusingly: It’s about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up: One of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend’s. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative has been switched around, but once I did, I was riveted.
I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story is among the best historical fiction I have read.
Nation, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, creator of Disc World, is a stand-alone story of apocalyptic adventure in an alternate world much like ours. Its protagonist, Mau, is woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that changes everything; he has been living alone on the Boys’ Island, preparing to leave his boy soul there and make his transition to manhood in the ways of his tribe. But on the morning he sets out in his canoe to return to the island and people he knows as the Nation, everything there is destroyed by a giant tidal wave. The wave does wash something up on his shore, though—a ship with a sole survivor, a girl from an empire halfway around the globe, who will help him work through both shattering doubts and confidence-building certainties about the new life they both must create.
This book is deeply philosophical, examining complex religious and cultural concepts, but Pratchett dresses the philosophy in a wardrobe of ghosts and gods, talking parrots and mutineers, cannibals and secret treasures, forming a seamless story that keeps you enthralled to the very last page. While this was an honor book in 2009 for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and will certainly appeal to teens, it is a wonderful story for all ages. And, as with all Pratchett novels, it has many funny moments as well.
Although Meg Rosoff is best known for her post-apocalyptic teen book, Where I Live Now, one of her lesser known titles sticks in my mind as a great read for both older teens and adults. In The Bride’s Farewell, set in 1850s rural England and with a Hardyesque feel, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can’t bear the thought of repeating her mother’s life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources—both inner and outer—and decide what’s worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.
I couldn’t put this book down—I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. It contains wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations. Rosoff’s language is spare, but deeply emotional.
So…adults out there—by all means recommend these to your teens, but read them yourselves as well! And mention them to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!
If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.
That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.
If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.
So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”
Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.
For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.
There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?
The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.
It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.