Book Review | The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler

Lulu Hurst is born in the post-war rural South, on an impoverished farm in North Georgia. From a young age, she knows there’s something different about her. She can communicate silently with her disabled younger brother, she can stand down wild animals, and she can captivate others through a penetrating stare. She’s also harbouring a dark secret – she dropped her brother on his head as a baby, and is convinced this is what has caused his stalled development. Her foray into mesmerism is driven, in no small part, by her desire to ‘cure’ her younger brother and atone for her mistake.

But it’s not until a series of events that Lulu is offered the opportunity to escape stultifying existence on the farm. She finds a book in her father’s study entitled The Power of Mesmeric Influence and is enchanted by the idea of being able to use her powers in this way. Shortly afterwards, lightning strikes the family home, opening the door for a thrilling new way of life. In a deeply suspicious age, her father senses an opportunity. They will attribute her powers to the lightning and the transference of an electrical power from the meteorological phenomenon onto the teenage girl.

Knowing this is his chance to pull his family out of debt, Lulu’s father begins honing and showcasing his daughter’s talents, transforming her into ‘The Magnetic Girl’.

‘Chickens clucked and purred around me, spellbound by their meal. Daddy’s idea of an audience behaved like these birds. Throw dry corn on the ground and know what they would do every time.
They would eat.
People would believe.’

He teaches her ‘tricks’ of catapulting fully-grown men across the room, to rave reviews across the state. He then takes her on a show circuit up and down the east coast, a performing pony, while he gathers the spoils. Lulu enjoys the freedom and new experiences this vaudeville affords her, but she struggles to reconcile expectations and reality, duty and desire for independence.

‘That much money was a strong argument against sentimentality. People believed I could conduct electricity with my fingers, that magnetism in my blood mirrored the copper and iron that had risen into me from the earth below my home.’

It may seem hard to believe now, in our age of scepticism, but back in the late 19th century, electricity was a new and unknown entity, and if you lived outside of a major city, it’s not something regular people would have ever encountered. In a deeply suspicious society, ripe for believing in powers beyond the physical world, this offered a unique opportunity – and a whole host of charlatans ready to exploit this vulnerability.

Jessica Handler draws on a real-life historical figure to create this fictionalised account of Lulu’s life, which adds an extra layer of depth and interest to a well-crafted tale. I read very little historical fiction, but I enjoyed the way Handler deftly captures this unique point in history; a society just two decades past the civil war and on the brink of huge technological, political and societal changes to come.

Although this takes place almost 150 years in the past, the character of Lulu is crafted in such a way to make her empathetic and relatable. Her compelling voice in first-person narration gives us an insight into her teenage thoughts, aspirations and struggles – and the boredom and the restlessness of youth. One thing I struggled with was a temporary change in viewpoint early on, when we jump back in time for a perspective from her father during the civil war. This felt jarring, taking us out of Lulu’s shoes but not offering that much more in the way of meaningful perspective or context to justify doing so.

Such a shift in perspective was brief, however, and then we were back with our heroine. Our empathy for her grows as she grapples with her desire to stay true to herself in the face of parental responsibility and the expectation of her adoring public. We see true growth in her character throughout the novel, as she comes into her own and is able to rise and find her voice, offering a unique perspective on the female experience during an intriguing point in American history.

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I was delighted to meet Jessica at a recent book club. I wrote this review prior to meeting her, but listening to her talk about the development process gave a fascinating insight into the birth of this novel.

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