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Most of us have heard of magical realism. But what about magical feminism?
It’s a term the literary critic Patricia Hart coined over 30 years ago to describe the work of celebrated Chilean author Isabel Allende.
Allende had been hailed as the “female” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the magical realism genre flowing out of Latin America in the 1980s.
Her mesmerising first novel, The House of the Spirits, appeared to follow the rhythms and realities of this style. Here, the material and the magical intertwined. Fantastical elements were normalised as part of everyday life.
Like Marquez and other authors of this genre, Allende was writing “literature of resistance”.
Magical realism was used to critique the immediate world, deliberately subverting traditional hierarchies and reshaping ideas of who really holds the power.
But in the Chilean writer’s hands, it became something else. Magic was a tool nurtured in women; a means to use their voice and find their freedom.
Freedom from the tyrannical rule of men and from a reality that hurt, but not freedom from family or tradition.
Because tradition, a matriarchal family and the actuality of being female – these old “weaknesses” became the strong elements of a power that centred women.
Of course, Allende wasn’t the only author then and now giving magical realism a feminist twist.
Women writers like Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel, Chicana author Ana Castillo, and Indian best-seller Arundhati Roy are among those who’ve gifted us with seers, shamans, witches and shapeshifters, all female-identifying characters taking controlof their world to re-create it as they want it to be.
9 Magical Feminist Novels You Should Read
If you’re curious to find out more about these writers and their magical feminist works, read on. We’ve listed some of the best of the bunch for you to enjoy.
The House of the Spirits - by Isabel Allende (1982)
Well, of course, I have to mention Allende’s masterpiece! A majestic, multi-generational story of a proud and passionate family, secret loves and violent revolution.
And at its centre is Clara, the youngest daughter who boasts paranormal powers and a connection to the spirit world, and whose love holds her family together.
Like Water for Chocolate - by Laura Esquivel (1989)
Set in revolutionary Mexico in the early 20th century, Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of Tita, a woman forbidden to marry. Pouring all of her emotions into her cooking, those who eat her food feel her pain and passion, often with tragic consequences.
So Far from God - by Ana Castillo (1993)
This smart, sassy and wonderfully soap-opera-like magical feminist tale is the story of Sofi and her four extraordinary daughters living in a small conservative town on the American border of Mexico.
Beloved - by Toni Morrison (1987)
Surprised to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author on the list? Toni Morrison’s enduring masterpiece of the colonial and post-colonial life of a slave woman haunted by her dead baby daughter uses magical feminism to rewrite Black female experience back into history.
Chocolat - by Joanne Harris (1999)
A young single mother arrives with her daughter in a French village on the eve of Lent, and opens a chocolate café opposite the church.
The villagers who turn out to enjoy her treats, start to experience a gentle unfolding of suppressed desires, hidden passions and desperate needs - much to the consternation of the local priest who makes it his aim to close down the chocolaterie.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - by Arundhati Roy (2017)
A novel that weaves together the stories of seven unconnected people against a background of some of the most tumultuous events in Indian history.
Central to the tale is Anjum, a transgender woman whose own tragedies lead her to open a guest-house in an Old Delhi graveyard where she gathers around her the lost, the broken and the cast out.
Sexing the Cherry - by Jeanette Winterson (1989)
On the banks of the Thames, a baby is found floating. Rescued by the Dog-Woman, a giant strong enough to fling an elephant into the air, their lives together take them on a dizzying journey through space and time.
As past and present collapse and centuries overlap, love, sex, truth, and lies are all revealed.
The Magic Toyshop - by Angela Carter (1967)
A dark and twisty tale centred on a young girl discovering and delighting in her newfound sexuality.
After a tragic event, Melanie is sent to live with relatives she’s never met, including her brooding Uncle Philip who appears to only love the disturbingly life-like puppets he creates in his workshop.
The Stories of Eva Luna - by Isabel Allende (1989)
It seems fitting to finish this list with yet another rich offering from Allende.
Following on from her novel Eva Luna, a gorgeous account of a poor young Latin American woman who finds love and friendship through her powers as a storyteller, The Stories of Eva Luna is an enchanting collection of Eva’s tales.
Love, envy, hope, vengeance – there is no emotion left unturned in these stories that prove if you look close enough, magic is always to be found in our every day.