Books with a Touch of Magic Realism: A List by Barry Webster
Cat’s Pilgrimage by Marilyn Bowering: In this labyrinthine novel, Bowering deftly mixes divergent elements including mythology, psychological realism, and fantasy. The effect is startling but never jarring. The pilgrimage of a teenaged girl who witnessed the drowning of a classmate takes her from Vancouver Island to a commune in England, all overlaid with the tale of the lost stones from Lucifer’s necklace. Mesmerizing.
Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen: Some years ago I witnessed a panel discussion where the topic was “Canadian Fiction: Quiet Literature for a Quiet Country.” In Cohen’s classic novel, he blows this stereotype to smithereens. The high octane-charged tale about the love affair between a scholar and the ghost of Sainte Catherine Tekakwitha is written at a fever pitch that many writers would have trouble maintaining for 260 pages. The voice never sags but roars exuberantly from the book’s beginning to its end.
Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley: Findley’s retelling of the Noah’s arc story makes huge imaginative demands on the reader, but the rainstorm, the flood, and the arc full of talking animals are believably presented since the scenes are grounded in realistic details. This is no pastel Sunday school retelling of the myth but rather is rooted in Findley’s anger and sense of moral outrage.
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner: Gartner’s razor-sharp social satire has a strong undercurrent of magic realism, a mix that is rare in Canlit. She deliberately exaggerates reality so that it inadvertently becomes a commentary on itself. Her portrayal of West Coast society is both otherworldly and realistically concrete.
We So Seldom Look On Love by Barbara Gowdy: Gowdy’s stories of Siamese twins, a six-legged girl, and a woman who levitates on her way to church is not a circus freakshow but is grounded in a tremendous sense of humanity. Though the bizarre is omnipresent here, it takes a back seat to poignant moments where true outsiders try to connect with others and insist on their own value.
Invisible Fictions: Contemporary Stories from Quebec by Geoff Hancock (ed.): I think magic realism is most at home in French-speaking Quebec because traditional folklore has survived there and has a larger presence than elsewhere in Canada. This collection contains a wide range of wonderful voices; some are established authors, others less known. A highlight is François Hébert’s “Prowling Around Little Red Riding Hood” wherein the famous fable is hilariously retold in fifteen different versions.
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaétan Soucy: Soucy takes risks with macabre subject matter in this novel about religious extremism, sexual dysfunction, and child abuse. The tale could be described as Quebec Rural Gothic and has one of the most disorienting, unsettling narrators I’ve ever come across. Not for the faint-hearted.
Changing Heaven by Jane Urquhart: This hypnotic novel about the relationship between the ghosts of Emily Bronte and a dead balloonist is written in a breathtakingly evocative, poetic prose that floats and drifts much like the two phantom-protagonists skimming along the edge of the Yorkshire moors.
Barry Webster's latest book is The Lava in My Bones (Arsenal Pulp Press). His first book, The Sound of All Flesh (Porcupine's Quill), won the ReLit Award for best short-story collection in 2005. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, the CBC-Quebec Prize, and the Hugh MacLennan Award. Originally from Toronto, he currently lives in East Montreal.