My five-year-old son spent the morning trying to convince me it wasn’t him, but a group of five, seven, 100 ninjas who came into his room and threw Legos everywhere.
My son has an interesting problem, one faced by writers who want to conjure up magic: magical realism, or ‘real maravilloso’—when marvelous or magical events occur in a realistic narrative, locating magic in the ordinary. While it’s typically associated with contemporary Latin American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Clarice Lispector, Isabel Allende, to name a few), it has found its way in novels by writers from other continents—Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass, Fay Weldon, and now Lucy Wood.
The title story in Wood’s collection, Diving Belles, is about an older woman, Iris, who descends to the bottom of the sea in a diving bell to search for her husband, who died in a shipwreck 48 years ago. How does she help the reader suspend disbelief so she can descend with Iris and search for the long lost husband? What style techniques can be invoked so that the reader isn’t left on the first page, scratching her head, saying no way (as I did on the morning of 100 ninjas)?
On page one, Wood begins to stretch the boundaries of realism with personification, animating that which is inanimate. “Cold air rushed through the open bottom of the bell, bringing with it the rusty smell of The Matriarch’s liver-spotted red flanks and the brackish damp seaweed.” The Matriarch, an old boat, takes on human characteristics with the word “flank.” Soon, Iris descends in the bell, and “the sea peaked and spat.” And later, “The wind hauled itself around the town, crashing into bins and slumping into washing, jangling the rigging on the fishing boats.”
Precise sensory details also help to convince the reader of an altered reality. Iris sits on a wooden bench in the diving bell. “The wooden bench was digging into her and the wind was rushing up her legs, snagging at the dress and exposing the map of veins.” When she’s under the sea, waiting for her dead husband to float by, “She took out a mint and crunched down hard, the grainy sugar digging into her back teeth.”
In magical realism, characters are not surprised that the world is operating in ways that can’t be explained by typical notions of natural law. Worlds collide, and the response is, well, better clean up the mess. The writer’s diction remains neutral, even pedestrian. As Iris plunges down into the sea, sitting on her wood bench, “Cold, dark water surged upwards. Iris lifted her feet… She didn’t want anything oily or foamy to stain Annie’s shoes. She went through a checklist—Vanish, cream cleaner, a bit of bicarb—something would get it out but it would be a fuss.”
Earlier in the story, when her mind leaps toward the things she tries not to think about and her husband swims back into the house, she begins to find elements of the sea in her house: “Then, she relived the morning when she had woken to the smell of salt and damp and found a tiny fish in its death throes on the pillow next to her. There was only a lukewarm indent in the pillow where her husband should have been.” Iris rises and gets to work, not calling the police or an exorcist, but cleaning: “It took her all day to scrub and bleach and mop the house back into shape.”
Wood compares the ordinary to the extraordinary, yoking them together. Deep underwater, Iris looks below her feet. “She could be looking at a lino or slate floor rather than a gap that opened into all those airless fathoms.” When she’s trying to see out the diving bell window, it was “as if she were moving through fog rather than water.”
And what seems ordinary is made extraordinary through strange imagery and hyperbole. In the office of Demelza, who runs the diving bell operation, Iris sat behind a desk, “which had a hunting knife skewered into one corner.” And above Iris, “A plastic singing fish leered down at Iris from the wall.” Her husband has been dead not a few years, but 48—or, in terms of nights ago, “Seventeen thousand, six hundred and thirty-two.”
As I help my son pick up the pieces of Lego strewn throughout his room, tucked under his bed, nestled in the corners, he tries again—“Maybe it was a giant with a big hairy body and a big chain around his neck and he was looking for something, like a huge diamond or chunk of gold.”
A smart boy, I think, admiring his technique. “Maybe,” I say.
Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.