I’ve always been a huge fan of novels that span the lives of multiple generations of a particular family, and I’ve always been an even bigger fan of those novels that do so with a layer of magic limning the course of those families’ histories. Maybe it’s because I grew up on my grandparents’ farm in rural Ohio, where three (now four) generations of Barzaks have lived and continue living, with one main farmhouse, like a hearth, at the center of a larger family enterprise. A sense of history permeates places where the past is not only allowed but encouraged to linger in the present. And with history comes stories of ancestors whose actions have shaped the frame within which a current generation lives.
It is a kind of haunting, really, living in such a world, where one’s family is not simply the nuclear suburban or urban entity most Americans and Westerners know of contemporary culture, where moving and separating, dividing like a good cell, is the norm. Having come from such a background, and having loved these sorts of books that focus on multigenerational sagas, I wanted to write one of my own, which has manifested in the release of my most recent novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, the writing of which was influenced in various ways by the families in these most magical and beautiful and heartbreaking novels.
House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende
This highly acclaimed novel by the niece (or more specifically, second cousin) of Salvador Allende, former President of Chile (1970-1973), chronicles the lives of several generations of the Trueba and del Valle families. Starting with the forefather and foremother who originate a family that rise from meager beginnings (on one side) into political power decades later, Allende traces the course of Chilean history itself through the movements of her characters, illustrating the destruction of colonial communities in a rapidly changing and conflicted socioeconomic sphere. The del Valle family has a touch of magic in their blood, which is most apparent in the character of Clara del Valle, who is clairvoyant and in touch with a variety of entities in the spirit world. Her presence, humane and connected to others through the human spirit, stands in opposition to her husband, whose harsh political beliefs nearly destroy his own family in the same way that those political beliefs nearly destroy their country.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Foolish and dangerous love is explored in this young adult novel, which spans several generations of the Roux family, in which the central character, Ava, is born with wings, and is charged with the existential duty of discovering who she is and how she fits into a world where such strangeness doesn’t fit comfortably, especially when there are those whose radical obsessions would ultimately attempt to destroy her.
Little, Big by John Crowley
A modern fantasy that chronicles the history of the Drinkwater family and their relationship with the world of the Fae (or fairy kind), with whom they are inextricably bound. This story, like so many stories of magical families, is centralized in the setting of an eccentric family house in a rural town called Edgewood, and moves through the generations of the Drinkwater family as the world of the Fae becomes increasingly endangered, forcing the family to make hard choices about how they themselves will survive.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s most famous novel is also perhaps her most magical. While easily reduced to being categorized as a ghost story, Morrison’s technique in this narrative moves beyond most ghost stories. Beloved is the ghost of a daughter murdered by an escaped slave, who does not wish her daughter to be returned to slavery when her former master finds them. In achingly beautiful descriptions, we see the ghost of Beloved come into being years later as her murderess mother expresses a physical manifestation of having her water break, despite not being pregnant. The haunting of the house, which figures into the narrative as the place where the former slave family has taken refuge over the Ohio border in Cincinnati, is painted in magical realist colors, including a swathe of red light that one has to pass through at times, which soaks those who penetrate it in sorrow and regret. The family who struggles with this ghost must overcome the past, which haunts them in various ways, and Morrison’s exploration of ghostliness and hauntings is both painful and beautiful in its rendering.
The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman
For generations, the Sparrow family has lived in New England, and for generations the women of the Sparrow family have exhibited paranormal powers. Following the most current generation in the form of Stella Sparrow, we discover (as Stella comes into her clairvoyant abilities) just what haunts the Sparrow family, bringing together three generations of Sparrow women, in order to save Stella from the potential ruin her powers may attract, and to save the family itself from ruin.
Christopher Barzak’s fiction includes the award winning adult novel, One for Sorrow (which was recently made into the major motion picture, Jamie Marks is Dead), the Nebula Award finalist, The Love We Share Without Knowing, and the short story collection Before and Afterlives, which won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. His most recent novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, is now out from Knopf.