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Magical Realism

the-head-of-the-saint-coverA Fierce and Subtle PoisonMagical Realism is hot: It’s the label attached to last year’s Printz winner Bone Gap, and it’s been popping up all over the YA and MG scene for the past few years. This year, again, offers us a handful of books in the genre. I’ve read three so far that deserve to be in the awards speculation pool, and today I’m going to talk about two of them (the last one is a late fall pub so we’ll wait on that).

Magical Realism is realistic literature with fantastical or magical elements, but it’s something more, because that bare bones definition also covers a significant chunk of fantasy. If you extend the definition, two additional points are worth noting: first, the setting; and second, the way the magic is received. The top-billed magical realists are Latin American — Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Laura Esquivel, Isabel Allende — and their settings are Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Chile. And in their books, the magic is not something apart — compare this to, say, Stiefvater’s Raven Boys quartet, where they all know the magic is strange, and, well, magical. Instead, in magical realist texts, the magic heightens the mundane and becomes an expression of emotion, rather than something characters step back and try to understand.

One of the two titles I’m discussing today reads to me like classic magical realism — no surprise, as it bears a dedication to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and is a Brazilian work, originally published in Portuguese and now translated into English. The second straddles the fantasy/magical realism line, but feels closer in its roots to magical realism than fantasy, so I’m going with the label.

Alright, enough introduction, and on to the books.

the-head-of-the-saint-coverThe Head of the Saint, Socorro Acioli, translated by Daniel Hahn
Delacorte Press, March 2016
Reviewed from ARC

I had a plan, formed after reading The Head of the Saint: I would read all the translated YA and write a fantastic roundup.

Only, do you know, it turns out very few works of translated YA fiction exist?

This is a shame and, honestly, an outrage. Literature transports us. It educates us. It creates empathy and understanding. But the USA is all me, me, me; we’re the ones who need to pretend to be from another country when we travel if we don’t want dirty looks and unkind assumptions. If we want to understand the world, if we want to step outside our bubbles of cultural assumptions and missteps, we need books from other places and utterly unfamiliar worlds, not just the USA-Britain-Australia triumvirate of voices, and not just books by American authors set in other places. All of those have value, but they aren’t the whole picture. Our teen readers deserve literature that brings them the whole picture.

This is the only work in translation I’ve seen this year that looks like it’s even remotely in the running for year-end recognition — and remote might be the keyword, with only two starred reviews and a wide gulf to bridge because of all the ways a translated work is playing against expectations and understandings of literature, which tend to be very culturally driven.

In a nutshell, this is the story of orphaned Samuel, who travels an immense distance to find his unknown father’s mother, and instead discovers a dying town, a headless saint, and a propensity for making connections.

There’s something earthy about this text — there’s a sort of rawness and lack of pretension. Characters are motivated by the simplest of appetites — love, revenge, fame, fear — but then Acioli turns that simplicity into an incredibly textured read. The writing itself is frequently lovely, and I have no doubt that effort went into both the Portuguese and the translation to get the rhythms of speech, the patterns of the stories woven throughout, the grace notes of humor — but it doesn’t read like a text that was labored over; it’s easy to see why Acioli is an award winner in Brazil, and why Hahn is know for his translation work.

More than anything, this is a quick, funny, heart-breaking work. The humor is generally sly, delivered in such a deadpan way that it takes a moment for the penny to drop. The narrative voice helps with this; there’s a shifting perspective third person, highlighting and obscuring moments, bouncing the reader around this small town.

Themes of love and forgiveness, of anger and loss, and the meaning of evil, all echo throughout. It’s also the story of a boy in search of a place, and a place in search of a heart, and what happens when they collide, with a dose of religious magic. The religious aspect might be the most unusual for the average US reader; there’s a degree of faith and a cultural acceptance of faith — the saints are everywhere, the first people the reader sees Samuel encounter are pilgrims, a saint’s statue has the power to make or break a town — that made it clear to me that I was reading something set someplace else. But the text isn’t telling me that, it’s just bringing a place to life and demonstrating the way that religion is a heartbeat for this community, even for the nonbeliever like Samuel.

(Did I mention that we need more works in translation, showing us lives lived elsewhere, rather than US-written, filtered-view books that seek to tell us about those lives?)

Everything about this was unexpected and delightful, even the unpleasant parts — and there are those. But the final impression was of a comedy and a love story (well, several): Samuel starts out angry and embittered, yes, and in terrible circumstances, but the moment Francisco enters, pants down with his dirty magazines, the tone shifts. Madeinusa’s prayer, the first one the reader hears, cements that this is a story of absurdity and wicked humor — she has the saint tied up under her bed, after all. The cast of characters is similarly absurd, but also believable: these are fully fleshed people, with motivations that are often unlovely, with secret desires and years of connections webbing them all together. Samuel, who is both of Candeia and utterly apart, is the perfect lever to set everything into motion, but it’s the miracle, the magic, that is needed for both he and the plot.

This is easy to see as a Batchelder candidate, but I fear it will be harder to see as a Printz candidate. There is, again, so much here that was unfamiliar, and it’s hard to imagine the state-side audience for this one. That said, I’d love to see this gem get the recognition and readership it deserves, because while it’s quieter than my other favorites this year it definitely ranks in the top five, and I know the RealCommittee reads closely enough to push through the challenges posed specifically by translated texts.

A Fierce and Subtle PoisonA Fierce and Subtle Poison, Samantha Mabry
Algonquin Young Readers, April 2016
Reviewed from ARC

Another book set to the south, this time Puerto Rico, and laced with magic and mystery. Blurbs for this one include Nova Ren Suma (pretty much the perfect readalike author) and Laura Ruby, making it clear who the audience is — and it’s an ever-growing audience, looking for magical realism set someplace bit more familiar than, say, the Brazilian countryside. Mabry balances her setting — and her own outsiderness — adeptly, by making her main character himself an outsider longing to fit in.

Lucas is the summer gringo — an American boy (even if his mother was originally from the Dominican Republic) with blond hair who wants to belong to Old San Juan, where he spends his summers while his developer father tries to exploit the surrounding countryside. Lucas, the narrator, understands that he can’t really belong to the world he prefers, but he tries anyway, immersing himself in local relationships and local stories, and that’s where Mabry brings the magic into play.

Interestingly, the magic here is scientific magic; everything magical has an explanation in the text, which betrays some of the base rules for magical realism, but the setting and the way the magic shapes so much of the experiences of those around it makes the overall feel in keeping with the literary genre.

This is a sensual read, befitting the murder-mystery plot. The green plants in the house at the end of the street have a palpable presence. Sand sticks to feet, hair drips water, heat and color and smell are all present. Plot wise, the mystery works, albeit imperfectly; the more compelling story is the interaction between Lucas and Isabel. His constant need to figure out who he is, to be a savior (his last name is Knight, in a bit of unsubtle imagery) collides with Isabel’s unbearable loneliness, her own sense of unbelonging, and her need to take control of her own fate. They are perfect matches, but the things they have in common doom them even without the small issue of poison skin.

I’m hoping this, maybe more than any other debut I’ve read, makes the Morris finalist pool. But as much as I enjoyed this, I don’t think it quite goes the distance for Printz. The occasional in-your-face imagery like Lucas’s last name, some clunky dialogue, and the decision to make the magic one more aspect of an actual mystery, explicable and not actually magic all, combine to make this an astounding debut that doesn’t quite line up with the year’s best. (Also I might be alone in my opinion on this one — only one star, and between the ARC and the final copy the cover was redone to pitch this much more commercially.)

Both of these are under the radar reads, so I might be talking to myself, but hopefully you’ll give them a look if you haven’t yet.

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. Boy can I relate to my frustration at how few translated YA novels are available for us in the US. A few years ago I had an English teacher who wanted her kids to read books from Latin America written by, um, Latin Americans. I couldn’t find enough books, even those written for adults, to satisfy a whole classroom of students, let alone a few classroom of students. We had to finally be satisfied with opening up the whole world and I was able to cobble together enough books to make the project work but it was a tremendous amount of work for me and it cost a lot since I had to buy a bunch of books (which now are languishing on the library shelves since that teacher has moved on and so has the curriculum.) I’ve read several YA books by Ruiz Zafon, a Spaniard, but then he announced he was down with YA. Sigh.

    My beef with Batchelder Award is the books that are chosen are usually geared toward upper Elementary/middle grade students. I haven’t read THE HEAD OF THE SAINT but I know I have a copy of the book in the library, so I’ll look around for it.

    Thanks for this insightful book review.

  2. Karyn Silverman says

    I love Carlos Ruiz Zafon, but I think his YA was all written well before he burst on to the scene with his amazing adult novels. I know there are two Finnish titles coming out next year, a reprint of the thriller Red as Blood by Salla Simukka and Maresi, first in a fantasy trilogy, by Maria Turtschanioff.

  3. I had huge problems with the portrayal of women in The Head of the Saint Yes, cultural norms differ and I’m coming to it with all sorts of liberal American baggage, but the presentation of women as nearly-mindless slaves to a desire to be married was both problematic and poor storytelling to me, as was the repetitious presentation of women as sexual objects defined by how we wear our hair and our weight. It pissed me off enough that I marked pages as I read and copied out passages before returning the book to the library:

    Stereotyped view of beauty: “She wore her hair long, always tied back, her skirt below the knee, clothes buttoned up to her neck. She instinctively knew that untidying her hair, rolling down the waistband of her skirt just a bit and opening one pathetic button on her blouse would make her even more beautiful, with many, many more years to live.” (53, Madeinusa) “She wore long skirts and her hair tied back–or at least she did until Fernando walked around Candeia Square with her. Now she let her hair hand loose in public.” (115, Helenice)

    Fat-shaming: “Another girl, who was hugely fat, had leaned back against the side of the saint’s head and made the poor thing roll over till his nose was almost in the earth. She’d had to lean on the opposite side to right it. Samuel made up an instruction from the saint that she must eat nothing but pineapple for a fortnight in order to purge herself of her sins, and that she must walk daily from Candeia to Canindé to light a candle to the saints.” (82) “the obese girl–ugly, oil-skinned, slick-haired.” (83)

    Shrewishness and gender roles in marriage: “‘A samba group? So now you’re going to Rio for Carnival, too?’ The crying was back. / ‘Of course I’m not, woman.’ [. . .] Within her house she wept rivers of longing for her husband. Before going to sleep, there were only tears, only lamentation. She worried about his not eating properly, about his health, about his clothes. She missed his dark skin, his accent, his eyes. Meanwhile he, on the other side of the ocean, wasn’t missing a thing. [. . .] As soon as he arrived in Cape Verde, the first thing he did was take off his wedding ring and hide it well.” (124-126)

    Male gaze: “Helenice’s wide hips promised a good brood.” (125) “staring at the fleshy bodies of the Cape Verdean women.” (126)

    Women as property, men as uncontrollable: “When her hands touched the Portuguese man’s skin, her felt capable of doing anything, anything in his life, to make that woman his, to make her sing just for him. / She had felt the same as soon as she saw him.” (127)

    Women as hysterics: “The girls sighed. They yelled as though hysterical. They were in agonies of envy. They wanted to find love, too.” (66) “They sad the woman had gone crazy at her husband’s sudden death. Any strange behavior was treated as madness.” (135)

    Women only wanting marriage: “Not always all the the voices, not always all the same words, but the one thing that remained constant was their petition: they were in love or they wanted to marry.” (30) “They wanted to get married. Almost all of them had a secret love hidden in their hearts, sometimes even a forbidden one, but a love of some sort. Others didn’t even have this. They had no focus for their prayers, no particular beloved for the saint to bring to them, but they wanted to get married because, out in the backlands, a woman who doesn’t get married is a cactus without a flower.” (75) “The despair of many young women who were frantic to marry.” (111) “In a town full of young girls who were desperate to marry, Fernando’s arrival had an even bigger effect than the announcement of the construction of the statue of the saint.” (114)

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Thanks, Mimi! That all went right over my head — possibly because I felt like I was elsewhere, and so I wasn’t reading for the same things, or possibly because I’m just a terrible reader! Now I need to completely rethink this.

      • I think in a lot of ways, that makes you a better reader than I am–it’s probably part of why you had an easier time with the 2014 section in The Passion of Dolssa than I did, among other things. But when it comes to things like this–or like the rape culture issues you were discussing with Character, Driven–that can be actively hurtful to the reader, it’s a bit different.

        (And don’t beat yourself up! We’re all going to miss things. I utterly missed the issues of presentation of women in Grasshopper Jungle until someone pointed it out because I was so focused on its issues of presentation of rape and bisexuality–and the person who pointed out the issues with women had missed the issues of rape and bisexuality until I pointed them out.)

        • Karyn Silverman says

          And this is why we need committees! Based on your insightful read, I’m dropping this from my top 5; I would have nominated it based ion my initial read but I won’t fight for it.

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