Magical realism is a phrase I never completely understood until I recently read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. The term seems contradictory: how could a realistic story contain magical elements? What does a writer do to introduce those elements without throwing the novel into the terrain of fantasy? I suppose some readers will argue that The Scorpio Races is fantasy, but I’m going to take the side of magical realism, and this analysis approaches her fabulous story with that in mind.
Her setting is entirely believable – an island off the coast of, well, something like Ireland. There are references to the mainland, the Atlantic, and America, and the names she uses have that Celtic ring: Finn Connolly, Sean Kendrick, Skarmouth, Thisby. Our heroine’s nickname is Puck, conjuring Shakespeare. People live in proper houses, drink in pubs, drive Morris cars, raise sheep; the rock-strewn grass hillocks are contained by hedgerows and stone walls. Altogether this is a place we know, its familiarity bred of our familiarity with Anglo-Saxon literature and lore, even if there is one extremely odd thing about this place.
The sea that surrounds the island is inhabited by flesh-eating water horses.
By the time I was ten pages in, I completely believed that Thisbe exists, and that I’d better watch out for those frightening yet beautiful uisce. That this magical element of The Scorpio Races also derives from our Celtic heritage is part of what makes it feel real.
The deadly November races on the backs of the uisce forms the heart of the concept, but this is also a love story, a coming-of-age story, a love-of-horse story, and a triumph of the spirit over soulless financial power. Sean and Puck tell their tales in first person present tense, enhancing the immediacy of both characters and plot: “this is happening to me, and it’s happening right now.” Once we buy into these characters, we buy the whole tale, hook, line, and sinker.
Puck is a game girl with a face full of freckles and unruly hair in the middle of an unruly orphaned life:
For a moment, I see the room like anyone else might see it. It looks like everything around Finn has crawled out of the mouth of the kitchen sink drain. It’s a mess, and we’re a mess, and no wonder Gabe wants to leave.
‘Let’s go,’ I say.
Sean’s voice is hard, born of his hard luck, and he knows horses. He knows horses better than anyone. He’s also a boy of few and well-chosen words:
I slide off her and hand him the reins. He takes them with a puzzled expression on his already puzzling face.
I say, ‘This mare is going to kill someone.’
The strong and enticing Puck and Sean, who are (as the reader sees long before they do) a perfect match, are also so much fun to live with that the story’s magical element is almost unnecessary. As a writer then, I've come to think that the best magical realism must possess this quality: that the realistic aspects of the story are even more engaging than the magical aspects.
In a true fantasy, our perception of the story itself may be clouded by dwarf behavior, elf antics, or fairy godmother wishes. In magical realism, the author could dispense with the magic – and still have a heck of a great tale. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Stiefvater writes beautifully, conjures a complete and visible world, and that her secondary characters are every bit as engaging as her protagonists.
But I maintain that in order to write great magical realism it is necessary to write a great, rich and complex story that rises above the magic – that the realistic part of the story makes a magic all its own.
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