Late January is a weird in-between time for a lot of people. The holidays are over and the excitement of New Year’s resolutions are beginning to fade, but there’s still a lot of cold, dark winter left to get through. I like to embrace the dark and the cold at this time of year, so I thought I’d dedicate January’s list to some of my favorite recent magical realism reads that complement the vibe of the dark half of the year. Just a bit of an escapism-based list that will hopefully help you enjoy these late winter days, while they last.
Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield has recently become one of my favorite novelists, and really, all of her books would be perfect for this list, but I chose my favorite to start with. Once Upon a River begins on the winter solstice, in a pub on the banks of the River Thames. The patrons are hiding away from the dark and the cold inside the pub, gathered around the warmth of the fire to drink and listen to the storytellers spin their yarns. Suddenly, a stranger bursts through the door carrying in his arms the body of a girl who drowned in the river. The patrons help to settle the body of the girl in a back room, where it will stay while they figure out who the girl is and what happened to her. But the girl doesn’t stay dead. She comes back to life. And this sets into motion a series of events that will come to have a huge impact on several women of the town, as the patrons scramble to unravel the mystery of the girl’s identity and what dark magic may be at work in her.
This book is really just a love letter to the dark fairytale as a genre, as the art of storytelling itself is reflected upon at length within the book.I loved absolutely everything about it, and if I had to recommend one book that’s perfect for curling up at home on a cold, dark day, it would absolutely be this one.
A History of Wild Places
Pastoral is a reclusive commune that was founded in the 1970s, and since then, the members have become more and more isolated, as they have learned that there is a rot that spreads through the trees and the air surrounding the commune, and the only way to stay safe from the disease is to stay within the community’s boundaries. Two of the members of the community, however, start to question the validity of this story, especially as they begin to discover clues about outsiders who seem to have come and gone without anyone having any memory of them ever having been there. That is, until the memories start to come back.
Their story is intertwined with the story of a PI who has been hired to search near the commune for a storybook author who went missing nearby a few years back. The storybook author’s own dark fairytales are woven into the story as well. This book suits this list not only because of the mystery element, but also because the forest itself is such a dark, haunting force throughout the story. There’s a clear line connecting the unreadability of the woods and the shadowy nature of memory, the games that the light can play depending on what you are willing to see.
The Book Eaters
Devon was born into a reclusive clan holed up in a fortress out on the Yorkshire moors. She is part of a breed of supernatural creatures who seem to be human, but are not, and who survive by consuming books. Her clan is just one of several, and due to a genetic disorder that causes daughters to be a rare occurrence, marriages have to be carefully managed to ensure the survival of their families. As a result, women born into the families are treated more like commodities than individuals, and Devon is forced to make a series of heartbreaking choices that lead her to end up on the run with her young son.
This novel is not only a genuinely unique example of magic realism, but also an ode to books in general. Every chapter begins with a quote from another novel, and some of my favorite passages were the ones that described how different genres of books taste to the book eaters.
A River Enchanted
Jack, a bard, has been gone from his homeland of Cadence (loosely modeled, I can’t help but believe, on Scotland) for years, but when he finally returns for a visit, he is drawn in almost against his will to the local troubles, when he finds out that several young girls have gone missing. Cadence is an enchanted place, where the spirits of earth, wind, fire and water coexist, somewhat uneasily, with the human residents. When Jack’s childhood companion, Adaira, who is next in line to become the head of the clan, asks him to stay and help sing the songs of the spirits to entreat them for information about the missing girls, Jack finds it impossible to turn her down.
This book is pure fairytale, but be warned that it is the first in a series and you will be left somewhat hanging at the end.
The Lost Apothecary
This book is two stories tangled up into one. The first is set in modern-day London, where Caroline is on her tenth-anniversary vacation by herself, having recently found out her husband has been cheating on her. While walking the banks of the River Thames, she finds an antique apothecary vial, and, having little else to do on her trip, and being a history buff, she of course begins to research. Her reading leads her to learn of a series of murders that took place in the late 18th century that were connected to an apothecary.
The other half of the story is, of course, the one of the apothecary and the woman who ran it nearly two and a half centuries prior. Nella caters to a female clientele, and so long as none of her concoctions are used to harm other women, she asks few questions about why her customers may need her assistance. She knows all too well that sometimes a woman’s options are limited. As Caroline continues on with her research, the timeline begins to flicker, and Caroline and Nella’s stories begin to intertwine.
I love this book for a lot of reasons — the atmospheric descriptions of 18th-century London, the nod to women’s part in the history of medicine, and the female camaraderie that ties the novel together.