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Magical Realism

Magical realism is a genre which very much interests me, but one which I know I don’t read enough.  I have created a post where I wish to showcase ten works of magical realist fiction – five which I have personally loved, and five which very much intrigue me – with the hope of incorporating more books of the genre into my future reading.

97801404554651. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov *****
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.

 

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern ***** (review here)
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.   Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.  Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.  Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.  As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

 

3. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter ****9781844085231
One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

 

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger *****
Audrey Niffenegger’s dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control makes their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

 

97800995382645. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender ****
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.  On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother — her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother — tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.  The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them.

 

6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.  As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

 

7. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King 9781101994887
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”  Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.  But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

 

8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.  As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

 

97802419516519. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
”My name is Eva, which means ‘life’, according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’. Isabel Allende tells the sweet and sinister story of an orphan who beguiles the world with her astonishing visions, triumphing over the worst of adversity and bringing light to a dark place.’

 

10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
‘On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures in post-war Germany.’

 

What is your favourite work of magical realism?  Have you read any of these?  Which other books would you recommend?

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Book Trail: From Circus to Island

I am finding the choices on The Book Depository website a little arbitrary when it comes to creating these Book Trail posts, so I have switched allegiance to Goodreads.  The choices it affords are generally far more unusual, and it’s quite refreshing not to have to wade through the most popular general fiction to find something a little different.  Without explaining my choices too much, let me present our newest Book Trail, which begins with one of my favourite books.

1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 9780099570295
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.  Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air. Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.’

 

This leads us to another of my absolute favourites…

97800995724732. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen
‘On a small snow-covered island—so tiny that it can’t be found on any map—lives twelve-year-old Minou, her philosopher Papa (a descendent of Descartes), Boxman the magician, and a clever dog called No-Name. A year earlier Minou’s mother left the house wearing her best shoes and carrying a large black umbrella. She never returned.  One morning Minou finds a dead boy washed up on the beach. Her father decides to lay him in the room that once belonged to her mother. Can her mother’s disappearance be explained by the boy? Will Boxman be able to help find her? Minou, unwilling to accept her mother’s death, attempts to find the truth through Descartes’ philosophy. Over the course of her investigation Minou will discover the truth about loss and love, a truth that The Vanishing Act conveys in a voice that is uniquely enchanting.’

 

We then move from one intriguing title to another…

3. Campari for Breakfast by Sara Crowe 9780552779647
In 1987, Sue Bowl’s world changes for ever. Her mother dies, leaving her feeling like she’s lost a vital part of herself. And then her father shacks up with an awful golddigger called Ivana.  But Sue’s mother always told her to make the most of what she’s got – and what she’s got is a love of writing and some interesting relatives. So Sue moves to her Aunt Coral’s crumbling ancestral home, Green Place, along with a growing bunch of oddballs and eccentrics. Not to mention the odd badger or two . . .  There she fully intends to write a book, fall in love, and learn to live decadently.  Campari for Breakfast is a heart-warming, eccentric novel that joins the ranks of great British coming-of-age novels such as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.’

 

Book four takes us from Campari to Cornwall…

97800074650884. A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale
‘When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby’s repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous. Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good?’

 

Book five pulls together peril in both the past and present…

5. The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale 9780552776172
‘On its way to the Galapagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice – should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves?  In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions.  Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his ‘cold philosophy’ cannot explain – something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness.  The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption – and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.’

 

Book six is one which I’ve had my eye on for quite a while…

97805712518726. The Wilding by Maria McCann
‘Jonathan Dymond, a 26-year old cider-maker in post-Civil War England, has enjoyed a quiet, harmonious existence until a letter arrives from his uncle with a request to speak with his father. When his father returns from the visit the next day, all he can say is that Jonathan’s uncle has died. Then Jonathan finds a fragment of the letter, with talk of inheritance and vengeance…’

 

The penultimate choice on this Book Trail is one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read…

7. The Still Point by Amy Sackville 9781846272301
‘At the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic explorer Edward Mackley sets out to reach the North Pole and vanishes into the icy landscape without a trace. He leaves behind a young wife, Emily, who awaits his return for decades, her dreams and devotion gradually freezing into rigid widowhood. A hundred years later, on a sweltering mid-summer’s day, Edward’s great-grand-niece Julia moves through the old family house, attempting to impose some order on the clutter of inherited belongings and memories from that ill-fated expedition, and taking care to ignore the deepening cracks within her own marriage. But as afternoon turns into evening, Julia makes a discovery that splinters her long-held image of Edward and Emily’s romance, and her husband Simon faces a precipitous choice that will decide the future of their relationship. Sharply observed and deeply engaging, The Still Point is a powerful literary debut, and a moving meditation on the distances – geographical and emotional – that can exist between two people.’

 

Our finishing point is another set in an isolated community…

97808573823378. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
‘A portrait of a marriage, a meditation on faith, and a journey of conquest and self-discovery, Island of Wings is a passionate and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights.  July, 1830. On the ten-hour sail west from the Hebrides to the islands of St. Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil’s journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St. Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie — bright, beautiful, and devoted — this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties.  As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage — and their sanity — is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil’s zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops?  Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril — it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

 

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Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

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One From the Archive: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern *****

‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Before I begin to speak about The Night Circus, I must say that the book itself (I am lucky enough to have the first edition hardback) is a thing of beauty.  Its pages are edged in black, the endpapers and illustrated pages are extremely pretty, and there is even a lovely red ribbon bookmark attached.  It pleases me when so much thought has been put into the aesthetic elements of the book, and this is one of my favourites in terms of design.

The blurb is incredibly enticing:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

“But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I first read The Night Circus last year, and very much enjoyed it.  I love the way in which the novel begins, and Morgenstern sets the scene beautifully.  The way in which she describes the circus is enchanting, and this element strengthens as the novel goes on.  I adore the descriptions of the enchantments which can be found within each tent; they drip with beauty, and Morgenstern has a way of making everything she writes about incredibly vivid.  The Night Circus is an incredibly absorbing book.  It has been plotted in such a way that as soon as one begins to read, a spell of sorts is cast upon them, which makes them want to do nothing but read on.

‘The Night Circus’ sculpture by Rabarama at deviantART

The use of different narrative techniques throughout is done in a skilful manner.  The main thread of the story is written using the third person perspective, and small sections of it use the second person, addressing the reader directly and making them a part of the story.  So many tales have been wondrously woven together, and many characters who are intrinsically linked within the circus come to light as the novel weaves its magic.  The characterisation is sublime.

I found, on my second reading, that I enjoyed it even more than the first.  It has joined my list of treasures, and is a novel which I will come back to again and again.  The Night Circus is beautiful, enchanting and incredibly clever, and the images which it creates will never leave me.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Book Club: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern ***** (November 2013)

‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Before I begin to speak about The Night Circus, I must say that the book itself (I am lucky enough to have the first edition hardback) is a thing of beauty.  Its pages are edged in black, the endpapers and illustrated pages are extremely pretty, and there is even a lovely red ribbon bookmark attached.  It pleases me when so much thought has been put into the aesthetic elements of the book, and this is one of my favourites in terms of design.

The blurb is incredibly enticing:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

“But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I first read The Night Circus last year, and very much enjoyed it.  I love the way in which the novel begins, and Morgenstern sets the scene beautifully.  The way in which she describes the circus is enchanting, and this element strengthens as the novel goes on.  I adore the descriptions of the enchantments which can be found within each tent; they drip with beauty, and Morgenstern has a way of making everything she writes about incredibly vivid.  The Night Circus is an incredibly absorbing book.  It has been plotted in such a way that as soon as one begins to read, a spell of sorts is cast upon them, which makes them want to do nothing but read on.

‘The Night Circus’ sculpture by Rabarama at deviantART

The use of different narrative techniques throughout is done in a skilful manner.  The main thread of the story is written using the third person perspective, and small sections of it use the second person, addressing the reader directly and making them a part of the story.  So many tales have been wondrously woven together, and many characters who are intrinsically linked within the circus come to light as the novel weaves its magic.  The characterisation is sublime.

I found, on my second reading, that I enjoyed it even more than the first.  It has joined my list of treasures, and is a novel which I will come back to again and again.  The Night Circus is beautiful, enchanting and incredibly clever, and the images which it creates will never leave me.