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The Magic of Magic Realism

The Magic of Magic Realism

“He was right there beside her, leaning up against the cold, blue tiles, made out of equal parts liquid and air, a fish out of water, a boy with no earthly form, drowned both in this life and the next.”

- The River King, Alice Hoffman

We learned about magic realism my sophomore year, reading a book that had frogs and military dictatorship and all that good stuff. It was only later that I learned the book, Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende, actually did not -- or at least, was not supposed to -- have magic realism in it.

Funny, I thought, considering how we spent months pouring over and writing essays on the literary device.

In any case, it was around that time I began reading Alice Hoffman and found The River King. It should be noted that I generally do not like books with murder mysteries, because they remind me of the old days when I read those irritating Hardy Boys books. You know the ones.

I loved the book, because it made me love and hate roses. Roses were what Annie Howe planted at the Haddan School, and when she was driven to near insanity, it was the roses that she cut. When she cut herself and bled on those flowers, she was choosing to deal with, or not deal with, a cruel situation. Her husband had mocked her, telling her that if she could turn the snow-white blooms crimson, he would let her go; I suppose this was in the days of old, when divorce was uncommon and unacceptable. There is no romanticism in her depression, but there is romance and magic in Alice Hoffman’s words, a Grimm’s fairytale, and Annie Howe was only the backstory. There is a lovely yet haunted atmosphere in the Haddan School, in the predicament of Carlin Leander, a beautiful girl from Florida, and a murdered, outcast of a boy. There are minnows that constantly appear in the pockets of the dead boy’s coat, which Carlin took in mourning. She wakes up to gritty, wet sand on her bedsheets, and there are pale blue ghosts in her school photographs. The centerpiece of the novel is still the roses that create such a heady scent girls are often struck with dizziness and loneliness.

Magic realism is as it sounds: elements in a story that are fantastical, yet do not appear so. And so it was with The River King, because by the end of the novel, I could have been convinced, with starry eyes and all, that dead boys returned as ghosts, that roses could create nostalgia so strong it rendered one insensible, and that, above all, that love could cling to someone like a second skin and persist until the bitter end.

I have something to admit: I never actually read books for plot. A plot is nothing if not accompanied by alluring descriptions. Although, in my case, the plot could essentially be nonexistent and I would have no cause to complain if the words were engaging.

I read The River King for the magic that was found in seemingly the most mundane places; it was in fish and rivers, in roses and rose gardens, in the town’s history and its present day. Essentially, the point of magic realism, in my opinion, is the brief entanglement in a world that is not your own, but seems so much like your own. It’s in the imagining of a place that you believe could be, but ultimately never will be.

The common day world is mundane, though many would beg to differ, and sometimes the only way to find magic is through the re-imagination of that world.  


Sherty Huang is currently a junior from Massachusetts, who enjoys her fleeting leisure time and wishes she was supplied more of it. She likes playing the piano, Alice Hoffman, traveling excessively, and eating at fancy restaurants (though she does not get to do much of that). Her other interests include marathoning Asian dramas in three days, writing (or typing) about her life, and shopping. However, much of her precious time is spent studying for history and physics, at which she is exceptionally bad. After this year, she hopes to spend a great deal of time in southern China before the tidal wave of college stress begins to hit. Following high school, there is no telling what life may bring.


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