What Magic Realism Means to Me

I am running a magic realism bloghop again this year. Some twenty blogs are signed up to take part and if last year’s bloghop is anything to go by, there will be some fascinating posts.

Over on the Magic Realism Books blog I have scheduled posts about magic realist fiction available free from the web, about useful magic realism resources and a review of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which features on all the magic realism lists as one of the most important magic realist books ever written and is one of my all-time favourite books. Despite having written three posts for my other blog I want to write a more personal post here on my personal blog about what magic realism means to me.

Of course there is good and bad magic realism, magic realist books that last for ever in your mind and others that are easily forgotten. But as a general rule I find that the magic realist approach to portraying the world is one that I respond to and I recognize that it reflects my own experience. That is not to say that I have seen people ascend to heaven, been followed by crowds of butterflies when I fell in love or watched a relative turn into an item of furniture. But rather that I believe in allegory and metaphor, in imagery, in archetypes and in a heightened awareness that extends beyond “physical” reality.

For me, realism is overestimated. It excludes the profound. It does not allow my soul to soar. Nor does it take me to the depths beyond pain. I am and have always been a poet and a bit of a mystic. For a while, as a student, I neglected that side of my personality in favour of the rational and the academic. I stopped writing. It didn’t last. The subconscious has a way of hitting back and my health suffered. Unable to think straight because of the pain, my reason dropped away and I was left with only instinct and intuition to fall back on – magic one might say. The poetry came flooding back. Here is part of the concluding section of a long poem I wrote at that time:

With pain falls silence.
Words fail reason,
Take on the form of dance
On unseen feet to unseen rhythms.
The silence of snow
Falls crystalline, smoothing out edges,
Curving the landscape into circles –
Roundel and bergomask.
But these dancers do not beat sticks,
Wear bells on ankles, shout “Hoy”
Or bow, kiss fingers
And place hands on whale-boned waists.
This is an older dance.
Its steps are preconditioned
By greater things than reason.
We return to an earlier silence,
A silence that is in the centre
Of the hurricane.
We return to the wind
That has rung hollow in our bones
And gone unheeded
Like the calling of ghosts.

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The Cover as Writing Aid

I find that working on the cover image of my book helps me work on the text itself. Right now I  need clarify my feelings about the book.

The book’s working name is Mud and it is set in modern Prague. At first I was playing with classic images of Prague – Charles Bridge and moody spires, but they didn’t feel right. For starters the story isn’t set in tourist Prague, but in the lovely but less well-known area of Holesovice. But I didn’t want to identify that area particularly.

One of the reasons for playing with the cover is that it helps me identify my audience and genre. For many writers that is easy, but I write magic realism which isn’t easy to slot into genres and can appeal to a range of audiences. The book is partly a psychological mystery (a main character is a Czech detective) and partly paranormal (the book touches on the Golem legend). I searched for books of these genres with a reference to Prague and got a load of books with moody spires or darkened streets. Maybe I should copy them – if it works… But I don’t want to.

I wanted a moody picture but not a conventional one. So I wrote down the key elements of the book. They were

  • the extreme storms and floods of 2013
  • the Golem
  • Prague
  • missing female
  • male detective

Then I searched for photos on 123rf.com which had combinations of the above phrases. It didn’t work until I used the word “rain” and “Prague”. That generated a photo by Czech photographer, Jaromír Chalabala. I clicked on his name and there was this photo:

It was just what I was looking for.  There’s even a hint of a Golem in those reflections, don’t you think?

Now all I’ve got to do is finish writing the book!

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Magic Realism Blog

I can’t believe that I haven’t told you about this, but it looks as though I haven’t – I have another blog. It’s on http://www.magic-realism.net

Just after I had published Girl in the Glass I went to an alternative literature festival in Leicester. I was still incredibly green about publishing and was unclear what sort of story I was writing. I knew it didn’t fit neatly into the usual genre headings that one gets on Amazon. I had got as far as knowing that it was a) women’s fiction and b) not quite fantasy. I was having a soup for lunch when I got chatting to another writer, who asked me what I wrote. I gave a short description and he repled “Oh you write magic realism.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Well Terry Pratchett described it as fantasy for people whose friends went to Oxbridge.”

“Oh,” I said thinking that indeed many of my friends were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge.

I wrote the genre down on a piece of paper, stuffed it in to my handbag and continued eating. When I got home, I could not find the paper nor could I remember what genre he had said I wrote.

A month or so later I found a review of the book on Amazon. The reviewer Iain M. Grant said:
“Zoe Brook’s novel is a true magic realist story. Its setting is a world that is not ours but is nonetheless recognisable. It is a novel in which the almost magical and vaguely supernatural are an accepted reality. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be reminded favourably of other authors. The setting and Anya’s sprawling and occasionally grotesque family put me in mind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Having said that the harsh, epic landscape of the story and the fable-like quality of a narrative held shades of Paulo Coelho.”

Lawks a mercy me! Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my all-time favourite books. Now armed with the name of the genre I did a Google search and discovered not only that I wrote magic realism, but that I had been reading it for years and not knowing it. There still seemed to be a lot ambiguity in my mind about what constituted magic realism, but I think this was because the term gets used wrongly. I decided that I would get to know my genre better. But how would this be achieved?

I knew that in order to do it properly I should set myself a task, one which is public and which I would feel obliged to complete. So I decided I would read one magic realist book a week for a year and that I would record my progress and what I found out about magic realism publicly on a dedicated blog. For the purposes of selecting books for the blog I chose the simplest definition I could find.

It’s now a month since I started and I’m loving it. I have drawn up a to-read list, following suggestions taken mostly from Goodreads, where there are at least two Magic Realism groups and several booklists. The books are very diverse – some literary, some for the popular market – which adds to my enjoyment. The requirement that I review what I read has proved extremely useful in solidifying my thoughts on the book and the genre.

So after all that work what is magic realism? I’m glad to say that the definition I chose is still remaining true: “Magical Realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.”

Please do visit the Magic Realism blog and check it out, better still join me in my challenge or at least part of it. It’s on http://www.magic-realism.net (in case you missed it at the beginning of this post).

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