Magical Realism

Review and Giveaway: “Glow” by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s debut novel “Glow” is a joy to read.  I’d highly recommend it, and invite you all to participate in a giveaway sponsored by the publisher.  Just leave a comment to enter.  I’ll draw the winner out of a hat on May 31.  Please include your e-mail address so that I can contact you if you win.

And now, for my review…

“Glow” is a historical novel set in the American South.  The story centers around a little girl named Ella McGee.  Her father is black and her mother, a civil rights activist, is Cherokee.  When Ella’s mother is threatened before a protest, she puts Ella on a bus back to her own hometown in Georgia, hoping to keep her safe.

While Ella’s story forms the basic framework of the novel, Ella herself doesn’t appear very much.  Instead, Tuccelli tells the story of several generations of Ella’s family, ranging in setting from mountain cabins to plantations.  Through each story, Tuccelli weaves a compelling commentary on race relations and sacrifices made to protect one’s family.

Having so many protagonists in a book of this length should have turned out very badly, but Tuccelli pulled it off masterfully.  Each character’s story is well developed, and watching the relationships between them intertwine gave this book a layer of depth and complexity that I hadn’t expected.  Each character is memorable and unique.  There is the story of Riddle Young, a Cherokee man who had a son, Alger, with a neighbor’s slave, whom he loved, only to realize that the child would be born into slavery.  Riddle spends years indentured as an overseer in order to convince the plantation owner to let him buy his son’s freedom.  Meanwhile Alger falls in love with Willie Mae, who can see ghosts and spirits.  Then there’s Mia, Ella’s mother, as she realizes for the first time as a child that people hate her because of her race.  Mia is such a strong character, and yet we see her desperate worry as she realizes that fighting for her rights places both her own life and that of her daughter in danger.

Each generation in Tuccelli’s story struggles with its own crises, and her characters do everything they can to overcome the obstacles that they face in life.  There is violence, and bad things happen to good people, but at the same time the overall tone is one of hope.

Oh, and did I mention that there’s a ghost story?

The spiritual and paranormal elements in “Glow” enhance the story, but don’t take anything away from the central message.  Tuccelli’s style reminds me of Isabelle Allende’s magical realism.  There are ghosts, but their presence in the story is subtle, and the overall focus is on creating snapshots of race relations throughout a family’s history over the course of several generations.

If you enjoyed “The Secret Life of Bees,” “The Help,” or anything by Isabel Allende, then you’ll probably love “Glow” as well.  I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to share it with you.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism | Tags: , , , , , , | 55 Comments

“Among Others” by Jo Walton

Over the past few months, many of you have recommended that I read “Among Others” by Jo Walton, both because of the magical and ethereal atmosphere and the numerous references to science fiction and fantasy novels.  I borrowed a copy from the library and loved it every bit as much as you all said that I would!

The story is set largely in a boarding school, which made me reminisce about the books of my childhood.  Stories like A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, and even Harry Potter captivated my imagination, and to this day I associate boarding schools with a vaguely sinister sense of magic and wonder.

The protagonist is a teenage girl named Mori.  Her mother is a witch, and she talks to fairies, but it isn’t what you’d expect.  The story takes a slow and meandering pace, mostly focusing on Mori’s struggles to fit in with her peers and her daily trials and tribulations.  She feels like she’s an outsider, and takes solace in reading the classics of science fiction and fantasy.

Think of this as a memoir.  Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class, and creed from the way they’d made everybody think.  I have the opposite problem.  I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal.  Fiction’s nice.  Fiction lets you select and simplify.  This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story.  But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story.  It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.

The real magic of “Among Others,” to me, is that Mori reminded me of my own teenage self.  She would have been a kindred spirit.  Of course, I gravitated to philosophy rather than sci-fi at the time, and spent my afternoons in the company of Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, but the sentiment remains the same.  Many of you probably had similar experiences, and like Mori, used books as a form of escapism to survive your teenage years.  The fairies take a backseat to this overarching theme, but that’s okay, and I wouldn’t have wanted the story to play out in any other way.

One of the things that I enjoyed here was the way that Jo Walton describes magic.  It’s a subtle idea, and is treated as the causative force behind coincidences.  At several points in the story, I wondered if it was all simply in Mori’s head, and that she was inventing the fairies to reconcile herself with a difficult childhood.  I changed my mind as the novel progressed, but the fact that magic seemed so normal and almost dismissible made it even more special to me.  It makes you feel bad for the people who are unable to recognize it.

As a brief forewarning, “Among Others” is the kind of book that will make you want to read more books.  Be prepared for that.  It will make you want to spend your evenings curled up with Silverberg, LeGuin, or Zelanzy.

I would recommend this to you if you spent your childhood exploring the worlds found within books.  It’s not for everyone, obviously, but I get the feeling that most of you reading this are the type of people who would love it.

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I read this as part of the Award Winning Books Challenge, as “Among Others” won a well-deserved Hugo award several weeks ago.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Magical Realism, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

“Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya

“Bless Me, Ultima” is considered to be one of the most important pieces of Chicano literature.  Set in the 1940s, it tells the coming of age story of a young boy named Antonio as he struggles to find his place in the world and develop his own beliefs.

As a child, Antonio feels pressure to choose between the values of his family.  His father’s side of the family were ranchers, and believed in the freedom of the open plains.  His mother’s side of the family were settled farmers who want him to adopt their way of life and become a priest.  When an old woman named Ultima comes to live with the family, Antonio discovers that magic is real, and that he must challenge his beliefs to develop his own identity.

This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past year.  I read it for a class on multiculturalism in libraries, and I’m glad that I did, because I don’t think I’d have found this one on my own.

Ultima’s character is fascinating.  She is a curandera, a spiritual healer who is one with nature and filled with a great sense of peace.  I love the way that Anaya incorporates both folk beliefs and Catholicism to create a greater cultural synthesis.  Having grown up in a very Catholic family, I can identify with Antonio’s childhood questions about his faith.  I was also greatly amused by the fact that the author chose to leave the boys’ cursing untranslated in Spanish, as it gave the book a more authentic feel.

I highly recommend “Bless Me, Ultima.”  It is a profound coming-of-age story that highlights the mystery present in the world, generational conflict, and the importance of finding one’s place in life.  It’s one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time.

Categories: Fiction, Magical Realism | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

“Island Beneath the Sea” by Isabel Allende

In “Island Beneath the Sea,” Chilean author Isabel Allende deviates from her usual setting of an unnamed South American country.  Instead, the novel takes place primarily in Haiti and New Orleans.  It is a tale of slavery, abuse, love, loss, sorrow, revolution, generation gaps, and incest.  (I definitely wasn’t expecting the incest…)

The novel begins when Toulouse Valmorian, a young Frenchman who enjoys Rousseau, is summoned to Haiti by his father, who is dying of syphilis.  Valmorian finds that he is now the family breadwinner, and the heir to a Haitian sugar plantation.  All of his former ideals fail him and he ends up becoming a wealthy slaveowner.  He tries to hold himself to higher standards than his peers, but still is responsible for many horrors.

Upon deciding to marry, Valmorian buys the young Tete, as a domestic slave for his wife.  Tete’s story becomes the focus of the novel, with the perspective often switching between two characters.  As Valmorain’s wife succumbs to mental illness and deteriorates, he begins raping Tete.  She has two children with him, one of whom is taken away from her.  Meanwhile, Tete becomes the caretaker of Valmorain’s legitimate child.

As a response to the brutality on the island, the Haitian slaves rebel.  I was greatly impressed by the way that Allende managed to portray all sides of the rebellion–you see why it happened, why it was justified, why it was inevitable, and how instead of righting wrongs, it became a bloodbath.

Despite her affair with one of the revolutionaries, Tete decides to stay with Valmorain and helps them to get off of the island, with the motive of protecting both her children and Valmorain’s son, whom she loves as her own.  They move briefly to Cuba and then to New Orleans, where conditions are somewhat better than in Haiti, but which has an entirely different culture.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel.  I did wish that I could have seen more of Tete’s feelings on the events that shape her life, but at the same time, I can understand why Allende chose to keep them hidden.  We don’t see much of Tete’s thoughts because of the fact that many of the characters in the book deny that she is even capable of thought.  We learn her emotions in her diary-like reflections every few chapters, which fill in the gaps about prior events.  I think it worked though, largely because the things that were left unsaid were more powerful than the things that were.

I also enjoyed reading about the secondary characters, which were more intriguing than the main ones.  For example, we see Violette, the mixed-race prostitute who, with the help of her slave Loula (who has a solid business sense), is able to manipulate her society and get rich.  We also see Dr. Parmentier, who realizes that the slaves have a more sophisticated medical knowledge than he does. Parmentier is one of the few characters who even in Haiti questioned the morality of the status quo regarding slavery.  Parmentier also maintained his own hidden mixed-race family, effectively leading a double life between his professional and family worlds.  Yet another fascinating character is Pere Anthony, a very tolerant and open-minded Catholic priest who takes the Biblical message of tolerance and kindness to heart.  Respected by blacks, whites, pirates, and gangsters as a living saint, he is able to help give a voice to those whose troubles normally wouldn’t be expressed or tolerated.

While I found the novel to be well-written and interesting, it was more depressing than Allende’s other novels (which tend to be only semi-depressing and end on a hopeful note).  At the same time, Haiti’s history was very turbulent, and the heaviness and gloom in the novel are historically accurate, and thus it couldn’t really be handled with rainbows and sunshine.  It’s a good book, but don’t expect a happy ending–in fact, reading the novel made me very glad that I live in this century.  I would recommend “Island Beneath the Sea” to anyone interested in Haitian history.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende

I wasn’t quite sure what genre to categorize this book as, largely because it blends elements of multiple genres into a unique novel.  Is there a line between magical realism and fantasy other than the fact that magical realism tends to be written first in Spanish?  While “The House of Spirits” incorporates elements of magical realism and uses fictional names, it could almost be categorized as historical fiction because of the allusions to actual events in South American history.  For clarity, I’ve chosen to list it as both.

Allende began writing “The House of the Spirits” after writing a letter to her grandfather when he was on his deathbed.  The story describes the saga of the Trueba family through three generations.  Esteban Trueba begins his life poor, but eventually becomes a wealthy landowner so that he can marry Clara de Valle.  During this time, he rapes a lot of the local peasant girls, one of whom becomes pregnant.  Trueba eventually marries Clara and has legitimate children, but his illegitimate son becomes a local revolutionary figure.  Meanwhile, Esteban’s children struggle against his tyrannical form of parenting.  It is only Estaban’s grandchild Clara who is finally able to soften him, despite the fact that she ends up becoming involved in leftist revolutionary activities.  This is, of course, only a very brief idea of what the book is about–there are many more characters with their own story arcs woven throughout Esteban’s life.

Allende’s characters are captivating, and she paints a beautiful picture of the generation gap between them.  One can simultaneously hate and pity Esteban.  Despite all of the horrible things that he does throughout the course of the novel, he still believes himself to be a good person, and he finds his redemption in the way that he cares for his granddaughter.  Allende’s description of South/Central American politics is incredibly vivid, because we are given characters to both sympathize and disagree with on all sides of a revolutionary upheaval, painting an ultimately tragic picture of such conflict.  Overall, I’d highly recommend this book, as well as any of Allende’s other works.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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