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Chilean-American author Isabel Allende’s debut novel, The House of the Spirits, is a classic of world literature, feminist historical fiction, and magical realism. Originally published in Spanish in Argentina in 1982, it has won awards, been made into a film and translated into over 20 languages. The novel follows four generations of the Trueba family. Set in an unspecified South American country, it parallels the story of 20e Chile of the Century, including figures resembling military dictator Augusto Pinochet and poet and politician Pablo Neruda. If you are looking for more books like The house of spiritsyou can start with this list.
Allende’s father and stepfather were both diplomats, and his godfather, Salvador Allende, served as Chile’s first socialist president. Pinochet’s coup, which ousted Salvador Allende, had a huge impact on his family.
Magic realism, or magical realism, is a Latin American literary movement that subverts European realism and colonialism by incorporating supernatural beliefs and elements. Many authors outside of Latin America write genre books with fantasy elements. Some authors classify these works in magic realism. Some call them rather sillage, fabulism or surrealism. As Anne Mai Yee Jansen pointed out on Book Riot in 2021, what is considered magical or unreal in one culture or religion may be a central belief in another, so the label is often contested.
The house of spirits fictionalises and weaves together history, social class, feminism and supernatural beliefs. Its many haunting images and symbols – such as ghosts, caged birds, mermaids and visions of Clara’s future – blur the line between fantasy and reality. If you also like magical realism, unforgettable images, multi-generational epics, feminism or historical fiction, check out these books like The house of spirits below.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This 1967 Colombian novel is a major work of magic realism and the Latin American boom of the 1960s and 1970s. The story of José Arcadio Buendía, founder of the fictional town of Macondo, combines his dreamlike images of mirrors and butterflies with a real story. The novel influenced Allende and countless other writers. However, instead of relegating women to the background, Allende wanted to focus on his female characters and how patriarchy and political change affected them.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
First published in Spanish in 1985, this novel tells the cursed 50-year love story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. Fermina has psychic moments, but the magical realism is more subtle than in A hundred years of loneliness. Some readers consider it one of the most romantic books of all time. Some readers think this shows how romantic love can be overly idealized and illusory. It also has a compelling narrative and an unforgettable opening line.
The Legacy of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
This 2021 novel is set in the small hidden town of Four Rivers, Ecuador, where magic happens without explanation. The family home and the town itself seem to appear overnight, and people can turn into trees. The narrative alternates between several generations as the descendants of the matriarch Orquídea Divina unveil the gifts and curses of their family.
Like water for chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Esquivel’s debut novel was first published in Mexico in 1989 and made into a film in 1992. The protagonist is a young woman nicknamed Tita, whose abusive mother forbade her from marrying. Tita is an excellent cook and her food conveys all her emotions to others, from anger to romantic passion. The book contains Tita’s recipes. He was very influential in magical realism and beyond.
Some magic or fabulist elements
Alice Hoffman’s Marriage of Opposites
Like Allende’s books, this novel fictionalizes real historical figures and makes visions, romantic love, and religion an integral part of the story. It follows three protagonists: Rachel, Jacobo and Lyddie. Rachel’s Jewish ancestors escaped from the Inquisition in Spain centuries earlier and settled on the island of St. Thomas. Rachel’s son Camille Pissarro would grow up to be one of the first Impressionist painters. This exciting novel takes us from the Caribbean to Paris and conveys the magic of art and romance.
Western Exit of Mohsin Hamid
In an unspecified country, probably somewhere in Southwest Asia, Nadia and Saeed meet and fall in love. The war and a new repressive regime make life too dangerous for them, especially for an independent young woman like Nadia. Without explanation, magical portals appear, transporting them out of their homeland. This is a unique perspective on the lack of choice and control that refugees and immigrants have over their lives, as well as how relationships change.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
This collection of interconnected short stories are told in reverse chronological order. It follows each of the four sisters over 30 years. It culminates when the family flees the Dominican Republic to escape the Trujillo dictatorship. Most of this book is a realistic, historical, coming-of-age novel, with some subtle and magical elements. A sister, Sandra, fears her own artistry after her paintings appear to have supernatural powers.
Song of Songs by Toni Morrison
Macon “Milkman” Dead III’s multi-generational family story uses biblical imagery and also draws inspiration from African-American folklore. As mentioned in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the 2019 Hulu documentary, enslaved Africans told folk stories about enslaved people returning to their homelands. Some versions of the folk tale equate stealing with death, but this novel is more ambiguous, making it seem like stealing is possible.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This speculative, genre-blending novel is set in an alternate era of 19th-century America, where the Underground Railroad is literally a railroad system. It has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Fiction Book Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Prize. Whitehead drew on SFF literature and U.S. and world history to imagine Cora’s escape from slavery and journey to eerily familiar U.S. states.
Out of magic realism mode
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This genre-blending historical horror novel follows Noemí Taboada, a young Mexican socialite in the 1950s, as she tries to save her cousin from a house called High Place. As in The house of spiritsmining, abusive patriarchs, surreal visions and the macabre are an integral part of the story.
The elements of horror in The house of spirits are underestimated. There are gruesome scenes involving Rosa’s corpse, starting with her autopsy on the kitchen table. This is one of the reasons the book has been challenged. Esteban Trueba is an abusive patriarch who violently controls his daughters.
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died aged 50 in 2003, made a mockery of magical realism. His work is postmodernist, not magical realist, blending historical fiction, mystery and literary satire. Along with Allende, he is one of the most famous novelists of Chilean origin and one of the most often translated into English. 2666 has multiple storylines and an apocalyptic vibe. It is divided into five sections. One of them relays the murders of 112 women in Santa Teresa, a fictional town in Mexico. He criticizes desensitized and incompetent investigators.
Homecoming by Yaa Gyasi
This 2016 historical fiction novel does not contain any fabulist elements, unlike the other books on this list. It follows two sisters in 18th century Ghana and their descendants, from Africa to slavery, the American Civil War and the Jazz Age to the present day. However, I’ve included it because it’s one of the best multi-generational novels I’ve ever read, with lively characters and settings. It’s a must-read for parent bonding, especially the female characters.