• Menna van Praag

Open Book -

I've been listening to Open Book on Radio 4 for as long as I can remember. So, when I was invited to speak on it - the same program as Isabel Allende, who I've admired every since reading The House of the Spirits over 20 years ago - I was thrilled. You can listen here.

Sadly & inevitably, they did cut my essay, but if you fancy reading, here it is in full:

When I was a little girl I, like most children, spent much of my time breaking through the thick walls of reality to enter the limitless vistas of my imagination. The fact that my parent’s divorce coincided with my discovery of both Wonderland and Narnia only reinforced this tendency. I spent hours reading while sitting in wardrobes, perfectly placed in case the portal to Narnia inadvertently opened.

At nineteen I read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and, by the time I’d turned the final page, the course of my life was set. I would be a writer. With every word I wrote, for better or worse, I was paving the way to my own enchanted house of eerie secrets and attic spirits.

The way Allende described her characters perfectly bridged the ordinary and the extra-ordinary, the natural and the super-natural. For example, Rosa was born with green hair and yellow eyes:

The tone of her skin, with its soft bluish lights, and of her hair, as well as her slow movements and silent character, all made one think of some inhabitant of the sea. There was something of the fish to her (if she had had a scaly tail, she would have been a mermaid), but her two legs placed her squarely on the tenuous line between a human being and a creature of myth.

In my twenties I discovered our own queen of Magical Realism, Angela Carter. Her blending of the real and the unreal was effortlessly sublime. Like Allende, her characters bridge the mundane and the magical. Thus we are introduced to the protagonist of Nights at the Circus:

‘Lor’ love you, sir!’ Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbins lids. ‘As to my place of birth, why, I saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the “Cockney Venus”, for nothing, sir, though they could just as well ‘ave called me “Helen of the High Wire”, due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore – for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched. Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!’

Magical Realism endures because it's a perfect reflection of the human condition. We are constantly divided; always tipping back and forth between positivity and negativity, between hope and despair, between faith and doubt. The best authors are able to perfectly balance between these two states. So, when Neil Gaiman, in his exquisite Stardust, sets the scene he takes elements of historical reality to ground the fantastical story, thus encouraging the potentially sceptical reader that these events aren’t quite so far from the real world:

The events that follow transpired many years ago. Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor… Mr Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires. Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully.

Some magical realism is pure whimsy. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern tells of a circus created by two magicians who fashion tents containing cloud mazes, pools of tears and wishing trees. Visiting this circus offers hours of pure fantastical escapism. Other authors inject magic into their stories to offer alternative social and political commentary. Thus in Exit West, Mohsin Hamid tells a tale of civil war and migration with the addition of black doors that can take people to random cities anywhere in the world. Unsurprisingly, this world without borders does not prove to be the safe-haven the immigrants might have hoped. In The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale tells of an enchanted Emporium where the toys come alive but it soon turns into a dark tale of sibling rivalry where the relentless competition between the two artisan brothers is reflected in the backdrop of the two world wars. The Binding by Bridget Collins is set in a society where novels aren’t created from imagination but real memories. So the book binder tells us:

We take memories and bind them. Whatever people can’t bear to remember. Whatever they can’t live with. We take those memories and put them where they can’t do any harm.

But while this first seems like a relief, a perfect form of therapy, it’s quickly becomes apparent that this leaves those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy vulnerable to great abuses. Magical worlds then are, in the most fundamental ways, no different from our own.

In this way Magical Realism is a juxtaposition between our knowledge of the mundane, dirty reality of life and our wish for the beautiful ideals of our dreams. Thus, we all know we're muggles yet we still hope, in a small secret part of our minds, that we might actually be magicians…

Also, the lovely Jez from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interviewed me here:

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My essay, adapted from my piece on Open Book, for the fabulous Frolic magazine...