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When She Was Electric

by Andrea MacPherson

When She Was Electric, a first novel from Vancouver author Andrea MacPherson, suffers from a sense of familiarity, a reliance on structural clichés that damages, almost irrevocably, this otherwise interesting debut. MacPherson’s narrative treads perilously close to the conventional while still managing to occasionally surprise and stir the reader.

Sixteen-year-old Ana Roth spends the summer of 1939 on her grandmother’s farm near Merritt, in the B.C. interior, with her younger brother Theo and her mother Min. It is a summer of sexual awakening for Ana, and of a growing awareness of the secrets around her, particularly those concerning her mother’s sexual history (and present). When a teenage girl disappears from Merritt, tensions rise, both within the town and between the townsfolk and the natives on a reserve adjoining Ana’s grandmother’s property. Race and sex, family and individual, past and present, love and death, blur together in a hot, languorous summer of revelation and pain.

It’s a strong and portentous story, carrying genuine emotional weight and told with considerable insight. All the more unfortunate, then, that MacPherson has chosen to couch the story in once-bold, now too-familiar and tired postmodern and post-feminist narrative trappings. The dreamlike voice and pacing lend the novel an air of stultifying passivity, with an overwrought, self-consciously poetic tone that attempts to imbue every image with a forced importance. The use of photography as a trope throughout the novel becomes trite, and invites comparison to many earlier novels, comparisons that do not serve MacPherson well.

MacPherson can clearly write – there are passages of lyrical grace and beauty here – and her storytelling is genuinely surprising and insightful, but there is little sense in When She Was Electric of an individual voice.


Reviewer: Robert Wiersema

Publisher: Raincoast Books


Price: $21.95

Page Count: 256 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55192-586-6

Issue Date: 2003-4

Categories: Fiction: Novels