Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What we're reading: Magical realism

A loose definition of "magical realism" is "a literary genre or style that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction." I just read a book off the teen New Books shelf that qualifies for this definition...although the supposedly realistic bits were nearly as fantastical as the parts that were supposed to be magical!

The book is The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore. In it, two families, both made up of "show people" (the Palomas are Spanish, the Corbeaus are French Romani), are on the road, setting up in villages and towns and performing for a week or two in each location. The families have been bitter enemies for generations, but once a year they end up in the town of Almendro at the same festival, competing for the audience while superstitiously avoiding contact with one another. This year, though, a disaster puts two teens, one from each tribe, in contact, and before they know that one is a Paloma and the other a Corbeau, Romeo- and Juliet-style sparks have flown.

The Palomas dress up as mermaids and do a water act--but they do their show not in a tank, but in any available river or lake close to a town from which they can draw an audience. The Corbeaus dress as birds (or fairies--they are described as both), with giant wings on their backs made of wire and peacock feathers, and they climb around high in the trees, dancing on the branches and mimicking flying from branch to branch.

This is the supposedly realistic set-up and background for the story...but all I could think about was how unlikely it is that there would be suitable water venues for the "mermaids" without overwhelming hazards present, and in enough places where they could realistically travel from town to town. And for the bird people, how many places are there with the right kind and size of trees, in the right kind of grouping, and also adjacent to a town from which to find an audience? The so-called realistic background was a problem for me!

But…the story itself, of the two least children in the feuding families and how they find each other, is magical and lovely, and got under my skin. The way that the rumors and legends and inaccuracies about what happened between the two families has poisoned the air between them so badly is an object lesson in making your own way and refusing to listen to the bitterness of the past. And the reveals at the end were powerful, as was the resolution.

I liked that one family was Spanish and one was French, with the languages dropped effectively and appropriately into the story, including alternating little aphorisms at the beginning of each chapter. The life in the trailers and on the road was nicely depicted. The alienation felt by the two protagonists was evocative. So…despite my misgivings about the realism, I'm calling this book magical!

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