Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler

When we look at the things that duped people long ago, we are generally pretty amazed that they could be so easily deceived, assuming, of course, that we would never be so gullible. And yet we probably believe any number of things that people in the future will look at and scoff over the way we today look at the mesmerism, spiritualism, and other forms of such obvious chicanery from the nineteenth century. Who will our charlatans turn out to be and what will they tell us about ourselves? Until we know that, we can examine those from the past who still have a hold on our imaginations, even if we no longer believe their sometimes earnest, sometimes intentionally duplicitous assertions. Jessica Handler's novel, The Magnetic Girl, takes one such figure, Lulu Hurst, The Georgia Wonder, and brings her to electrifying life.

Early on convinced that she can control people (and animals) and their actions using just her mind, Lulu Hurst is well primed for what comes next in her life. After lightning strikes the poor Georgia farm where she lives with her parents and her younger disabled brother Leo, she becomes convinced that she can channel electricity through her body in addition to reading people's minds. This belief, coupled with the contents of an unusual book on mesmerism that she finds on her father's bookshelf, pushes Lulu to hone her gifts so that she may one day heal her brother and atone for an accident she believes be the root of his problems. Meanwhile, her father decides to capitalize on her naive, hope-filled belief, teaching and guiding her in her feats of amazing strength, arranging for her to perform locally before taking her magnetic act on the road, captivating audiences throughout the South and up and down the East Coast, always pushing for bigger venues, more publicity, and harder, expanded "tests" of her powers.

The novel is mostly told in first person by Lulu herself with some alternating chapters in third person focusing on her father starting twenty years prior, building the man who would direct and control his daughter's performances. When the book opens, Lulu is naive and hopeful. As she continues, she not only grows into her own power, but she sees and pushes back at the growing exploitation. Her chapters are introspective and thoughtful whereas her father's are much more calculating. Lulu follows her father's lead until she finds her own voice, her own strength, and her own desires. Handler has done a fantastic job evoking the US of post Civil War, an America wanting to believe, needing to contact their so many young men dead before their time, wanting to be amazed by electricity, needing to see the unexplainable and call them miracles.  There is a dreamy, detached feel to the narrative and the novel is definitely more character driven than reliant on plot happenings.  It is well written, but slow paced and populated with odd characters so it may not be for everyone but those who are fascinated by our human ability to humbug and be humbugged will certainly enjoy watching Lulu perform on the page for them.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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