Kafka on the Shore

What is the difference between adult fable, literary fantasy, and so-called magic realism? A lot will depend on your reading tastes. A common distinction between these concepts is that while magical realism takes place in a predominantly realistic world, fantasy takes place in an unreal world with unreal characters. But is it that simple?

For characters in the created world of magical realism, often the extraordinary is treated as ordinary. It is as if angels, flying horses and levitating humans are commonplace. However, in many pre-industrial or more spiritual societies, myth is part of everyday life, so this difference is far harder to separate. Ghost stories, or tales involving the paranormal, may feature as an aspect of fantasy literature but may also border on realism, likewise much of the horror genre.

Often the term ‘magic realism’ can carry connotations of more than just imagination. Exponents of this literary form may have in mind a political or ideological intention, indicating their response to extreme societal situations. For example, surrealism has frequently been an expression of trying to understand chaotic and violent influences in time of war, political repression or slavery.

Likewise, magic realism can be an artistic manifestation of the tensions within a community or society. Extreme examples are Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov or The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. It is no coincidence that in the twentieth century, the literary form dubbed magic realism flourished among marginalized elements in unstable societies and totalitarian regimes across parts of Latin America and countries of the Soviet bloc. Today, with democracy under threat in many other parts of the world, we may well see new branches of this form emerging.

Three authors

Here are our picks for the most memorable examples of magic realism in books.

Beloved by Toni Morrison [B1365]


Chocolat by Joanne Harris [B1633]


The Famished Road by Ben Okri

The Famished Road

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende [B1176]

The House of the Spirits

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore

Life of Pi by Yann Martel [B1788]

Life of Pi

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie [B1145]

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman [B2206]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Red Sorghum

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass [B0070]

The Tin Drum

What do you think? Have we left anyone out? How about Franz Kafka or Jorge Luis Borges or Nikolai Gogol or Italo Calvino? Or some other favourites?