Genre is a funny thing. While it’s often easy–and frankly helpful– to divide novels into their neatly labeled slots based on basic characteristics such as setting and plot. However, stories–like human beings–resist being placed into boxes and novels that blur the lines between genres consistently bring something unique to the table.
Today I wanted to highlight recent titles that experiment with two genres often perceived as polar opposites: contemporary realistic and fantasy fiction. Frequently, such titles are classified as magical realism. This category is fascinating and tricky to define but generally, it includes novels set in a world like ours but with certain magical elements as a natural part of that world; magical realism usually does not include world-building or explanations of its magical elements. For a larger overview of the genre and its place in young adult fiction, I recommend this excellent post by Kelly Jensen & Kimberly Francisco over at Stacked. For further explorations, check out Hub bloggers Julie Bartel and Alegria Barclay’s posts in memory of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the authors most often identified with magical realism.
While I’m not sure that all these titles fit the generally accepted definition of magical realism, they all use strategic fantastical elements to illuminate contemporary stories about young adults’ coming of age in a world like ours. Each title defies common genre expectations and none fit comfortably into a single category. Instead they bend, reject, and flirt with multiple genres to create something unusual and compelling.
Afterworlds – Scott Westerfeld
In between final exams and college applications, Darcy Patel wrote a novel and sent it off to a publisher on a whim. Now, she’s moving to New York City with an amazing book deal but without an apartment, friends, or any idea what’s waiting for her. As Darcy navigates the thrilling and overwhelming new world of professional writing & publishing, she also attempts to ride the ecstatic highs and heart-crushing lows of falling in love for the first time.
Meanwhile, the protagonist of her paranormal thriller, Lizzie Scofield, deals with the strange new abilities she’s gained since surviving a terrorist attack by playing dead and slipping temporarily into another reality known as the Afterworld. Told in alternating chapters, Darcy and Lizzie’s stories intertwine as both young women venture into adulthood and face unfamiliar decisions.
This intriguing novel could be classified as contemporary fiction with an embedded paranormal thriller but I prefer to think of it as a form of metafiction; after all, it’s a story about a writer beginning to sort out her emerging identity by writing a story about a young woman doing the same–just with death gods and ghosts.
Dirty Wings – Sarah McCarry
Piano prodigy Maia lives like a princess in a tower, going through the motions of her circumscribed existence automatically–until she meets Cass, a street kid and witch with strange dreams. While Maia can barely do a load of laundry, Cass survives with only her wits and criminal instincts. But from their first meeting, the two young women are fascinated and compelled by each other. When Cass helps Maia escape her stilted life and the two hit the road in a stolen convertible, their bond becomes even more intense. But soon Cass will have to fight to keep Maia safe from both the needy but charming rock musician Jason and the strange skeletal man who haunts her dreams.
This lyrical novel could be described as urban fantasy, magical realism, or punk-rock fairy tale. At its heart, it is the story of a passionate and life-altering friendship between two young woman searching for independence and belonging in a world. The companion novel, All Our Pretty Songs (Outstanding Books for The College Bound 2014), also uses a fusion of the fantastic and the realistic to tell a rich tale of friendship, love, and music.
Belzhar – Meg Wolitzer
When Jam Gallahue lost Reeve Maxfield, first boy she’d ever loved, after only forty-one days together, she was devastated. After spending a year sunk in a deep depression, Jam is now being sent off to The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school for “emotionally fragile teens.” To make the situation worse, she’s been signed up for Special Topics in English. Jam doesn’t want to discuss Sylvia Plath with a group of equally broken teens; she just wants to return to a past when she and Reeve were spending free period sneaking kisses in the library stacks.
Then a journal-writing assignment allows Jam to do just that–one moment she’s beginning an entry in her Special Topics journal and the next she’s transported into a strange otherworld where she can wrap herself in Reeve’s arms again. However, as Jam and her classmates visit the otherworld they’ve christened Belzhar, she must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice to reclaim her loss.
Jam’s journey appears to a prime example of magical realism–a contemporary story exploring love, loss, and healing through the addition of a single surrealistic element. However, it walks quite a tightrope between these two genres and readers will likely have differing interpretations.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future – A.S. King
Unlike her classmates, Glory doesn’t feel any particular sense of joy or freedom as she approaches high school graduation. She has no plan for her next move–no idea of any future for herself, either ideal or realistic. Then Glory and her best friend Ellie decide to drink the desiccated remains of a bat and suddenly Glory find herself bombarded by visions. Now, when she looks at the world she sees life in triplicate–viewing each individual’s infinite past and future.
And as she tries to reconcile new revelations about her mother’s suicide over ten years ago, Glory sees a future where women’s rights are disappearing and a new civil war has broken out. Now, Glory must work to make sense of the strange but critical connections between the past, the present, and future–for herself and the world. A.S. King has incorporated aspects of magical realism into most of her novels with great success and her newest is no exception.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquz