This is a story strong on description, full of characters with hidden depths and normal secrets. It is a story about a mother-daughter relationship (and not one to aspire to).
The story is primarily told from Ana’s point of view, though we also get glimpses into her mother, Min. We are introduced to Ana as an adult and then taken back to her teenage years and one crucial summer in the small British Columbia town of Merrit. The 1940s, there’s a war going on but it mostly feels far away. Ana and Min, along with Ana’s brother Theo have returned to Min’s mother’s farm where Min grew up and her mother and her sister still live. They are escaping the recent death of Min’s youngest child, a death we learn more about as the novel progresses. Unbeknownst to Ana and Theo, Min has also decided to leave her husband behind.
As Ana works through her own grief over her sister’s death, feeling continually more estranged from her mother, the reader watches her follow in her mother’s footsteps in some unexpected (and some expected) ways. Min is a strange and somewhat ethereal character. A woman who seems to float through life thinking only of herself, brushing against the lives of others without fear or care of how she hurts them. The novel shows two drastically different ways of reacting to this as we watch Ana and Theo struggle to gain Min’s love and attention.
While the novel isn’t heavy on plot or action, it somehow still manages to be a fascinating read. Almost more of a character study than a full-blown novel. At times, it leans toward the overly descriptive and some of the description do start to feel repetitive but many of them are beautiful and often startling. MacPherson has a gift for making the reader look at something familiar in a new way. This gives the whole novel a sense of the otherworldly, as if set in an Earth that is not quite our own.
There is a sort of half-plot of racial tension between the people of Merrit and the indigenous peoples who live on the outskirts of town. There’s a lot of potential there and a decent amount of page time given over to it but it’s never fully developed and so ends up feeling a little tacked-on. There is, however, a reveal that I found surprising and throws parts of the book into a different perspective. I just wish MacPherson had expanded on this aspect of the novel further.
While not a perfect novel, there is plenty to admire in When She Was Electric.