As part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop, running 22-24 July, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses her use of historical settings for her magical realist novels.
Almost a year ago, I responded to Robert Harris‘s lack of enthusiasm for magical realism. He said, “I enjoy recreating the concrete details of a society or a city or a country or a structure and then playing around with it. I’ve no taste at all for fantasy, or for magic realism. That’s garlic to a vampire as far as I’m concerned.” I observed that Mr Harris seems to position his works as directly opposite to magical realism, “as if facts are somehow literally fatal to the genre or vice versa.” And yet, as I went on to say, “if one is to consider Mr Harris’s Fatherland or Pompeii, has he not merely done as I and other magical realist authors do: to take a position in our familiar world, and simply consider a new perspective on what we know? He calls it “playing around”. I call it a “what if?””
I recently published my third magical realist novel, The Salt Factory, and like its companions Equilibrium and Rising Up, it embraces a historical setting, this time England and Colorado in the early 1890s. And as my thoughts turned to what I am going to write next, I wondered whether there is something implicit in the historical setting that makes it an effective home for magical realism.
Zoe Brooks, host of this fabulous Magic Realism Blog Hop, defines magical realism on her website as “a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Like most historical novelists, I strive for accuracy in my books, and spend hours researching the period, the geography, the vocabulary and so on to enable me to create as authentic a setting as possible, a setting that is, as Zoe describes, “realistic”. Yet why do I go to so much trouble to create an authentic historical setting when I’m going to be challenging the reader to think of that same world in a different way, because of the magical realist themes I introduce? Will you care that Thelonia Jones is wearing the correct Victorian knickerbockers when I’m going to introduce her (and you) to a little girl who can bring dead things back to life?
I wonder if there is a veil of otherness and separation that falls over a novel when its setting is removed from us in time as well as in possibility, a veil that actually helps us believe more in the book’s magical qualities? In other words, if I set this story in a land far, far away in distance and time, isn’t it much more possible that the things I’m going to tell you happened actually did happen? Isn’t that far more likely than if I tell you this happened yesterday in a house around the corner from where you live, which might make you start thinking of reasons why it can’t possibly have occurred? It’s a wonderful paradox, typical of what makes fiction so fascinating, that while I strive to make you believe in the authenticity of the Victorian England I am painting in my novel, I am doing so just so you will feel more comfortable when I show you something very extraordinary in that world.
My motivation for writing has never been to find out how far I can stretch the boundaries of your imagination. I am not a creator of marvellous ‘worlds through secret doors’ like Tahlia Newland’s Diamond Peak or John Dutton’s Temple of Truth. The magical realist aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first, they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.
So perhaps I also like using a historical setting because it’s a way of lessening the shock. If I make you comfortable in a world by making it feel authentic, then you will be less disturbed when I reveal some of the hidden truths about that world. There is something very safe about historical fiction. We are escaping from this time and this world to one which seems less complicated, and through which the author leads us like an experienced tour guide. And so perhaps we are less troubled when unusual things happen there, for we can learn the lessons of that world, understand its characters, appreciate its themes, admire its vision, because it is a foundation for our world, and yet still safely separate from it.
allonymbooks has also published a contemporary satire with a magical realist twist by Cadell Blackstock. Cadell has now blogged about ‘Magical Realism for Men’ as part of the blog hop. To find out more about Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, visit his page.
To enter the fabulous giveaway of magical realist books, including Evie’s novel Equilibrium, and a Franz Kafka bookmark, follow this link!
For Evie’s reviews of some other magical realist books, check out those listed on indie book reviews.
To read other blogs from allonymbooks on magical realism, try this tag.
To read other blogs on the Magic Realism Blog Hop, please visit the other participating writers: