Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power

Well. Usually I have no trouble categorising books into genres, but this one has me slightly flummoxed. Part sci-fi, part dystopia, part social commentary, The Power is pretty unique, and makes a bold statement about sexism and gender roles in contemporary society. It’s certainly not one that the marketing team could tout as “The next [insert popular and over-hyped book here]”. One day, out of nowhere, teenage girls develop the power to shoot bolts of electricity from their fingertips. Quite suddenly, the long-established balance of power begins to tip in favour of women as they become physically stronger than men. In countries where women have been long repressed, they begin to rebel; they begin to occupy positions of political power in a traditionally male-dominated sphere; they have control where they were previously controlled. The book then follows four main characters, one male and three female, over a period of several years as they adjust to the new world order. The novel begs the question: “What would happen if women ruled the world?” Alderman’s answer is interesting, to say the least.

This was a real slow burner for me. It was a twelve-hour audiobook and I was a good four hours in before I felt properly “into it”. Sometimes I don’t think listening to an audiobook helps when you are faced with a novel that is slow to pick up the pace; the nature of it means that you are forced to experience it more slowly than if you were reading in your head. There was a lot of scene-setting to introduce each of the four main storylines and I felt that this could have been reduced to give the book more impact. However, once things begin to escalate and the men in power are trying to contain this new phenomenon and rebellions and power struggles begin to surge up in countries where females have traditionally been downtrodden, the pace really picked up and I began to follow with much more interest, particularly as the author began to introduce very recognisable parallels between the world she’d created and the society we live in today. The US governor who can’t take a male journalist seriously because he’s too good-looking and who takes a young male aide up to bed so she can get her sexual frustration off her chest and concentrate on politics; the male population’s outrage and protest at a girl caught preaching to a young boy that God has made him naturally humble and obedient; a rape scene during which the woman tells the man he was asking for it and that he’s loving it really. By flipping these highly recognisable scenarios on their head, I felt that the author was asking the reader to re-examine situations that we have all unfortunately come to take for granted. Our society’s lack of reaction and acceptance of these kinds of situations stand in stark contrast with the male, right-wing militant terrorist groups that spring up in the novel in protest to the same scenarios in reverse.

As someone who loves a good sci-fi, the actual “Power” element was quite interesting. From nowhere, it suddenly develops in all teenage girls, and all female babies born after this point in time have it at birth. It manifests itself as a physical organ, called the “skein”, which is located near the collarbone. What I found interesting was that teenage girls were then able to awaken the Power in older women, which I interpreted as a metaphor for the younger, more socially-aware and modern generation of women in today’s society being able to awaken this awareness and drive for change in older generations. I found it interesting to understand how girls have different levels of Power and how a whole culture with new adjectives and insults and a new hierarchy slowly begins to grow up around the new social order. My favourite part of the exploration of the Power was how men tried to develop an operation enabling them to remove a woman’s skein and transplant it into a man to give him the Power.

The trouble with multi-perspective novels is that sometimes you enjoy one person’s perspective more than others. My favourite perspective was that of Tunde, a Nigerian student who makes his name as a journalist travelling the world documenting unfolding events. As the only male perspective, it was interesting to experience the upheaval of traditional society through the eyes of a man. My least favourite perspective was that of Allie a.k.a. Mother Eve, whose rise from a child in care being abused by her foster father to evangelical TV superstar was obviously intended as a commentary of today’s male-dominated Christianity flipped on its head (referring to God as “the Mother”, a female, etc.) However, as somebody who dislikes hearing and reading about organised religion, I found it hard to listen to all the preaching, even if it was to serve Alderman’s higher purpose of social critique.

I had another issue with the new social and political structures that unfold first in Saudi Arabia, where huge riots break out as women use their Power to set cars alight in protest against the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive, and then in Moldova, where the corrupt former President’s wife succeeds him in this role and eventually turns the country into a female-dominated dictatorship with men as second-class citizens. Although I understood that Alderman had created these as case studiestaking them to the extreme to examine the potential of what could happen, I felt that the revolutions occurred too fast to be credible in terms of the plot and time frame. I found it a little hard to believe that, in a country where women have been dominated and subservient for thousands of years, they would rise up in so spectacular a fashion quite so quickly. Likewise, the situation in Moldova felt as though it had veered too far into the realm of fantastical dystopia, just to make a point. In a roundabout, rambling way, I’m saying that perhaps this was my main issue: the situations described in the novel were manipulated to serve Alderman’s overarching goal ofq satire and critique, which meant that the boundaries of credibility were stretched somewhat in places to accommodate it.

My favourite part of the novel, however, were the letters exchanged between a male author and his female publisher framing the novel proper, written 5,000 years after the novel’s events, which have become known as “The Cataclysm”. As it turns out, the book has actually been authored by a man called Neil, who wants to write a fictionalised reimagining of world history. His publisher, Naomi, exchanges letters with him which rather patronisingly argue for the established version of world history (i.e., women have always been dominant, all historical sources serve as proof of this, men are subservient worker drones while women need to be powerful and strong to protect their children, etc.) The whole idea here is obviously to critique the fact that history is a cultural construct, and of course if history has been primarily written by men/women for the past 5,000 years then it will clearly perpetuate a male-/female-centric worldview. Alderman also delivers some wonderful backhanders to the publishing industry (I love her suggestion that Neil publish his novel under a female pseudonym in order for it to be taken more seriously).

All in all, I found this to be a really interesting exploration of gender and sexism as it stands today and a highly worthy contender on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. If I’m talking of it purely in terms of a novel, I didn’t enjoy it quite so much; the actual plot took a bit of a backseat to allow Alderman’s opinions on various aspects of contemporary society to shine through.

N.B. To add to this already quite long review (sorry?), the audiobook was mostly good, although the narrator’s Saudi Arabian and Moldovan accents were oddly similar, and sometimes, even though the narration was standard British, the narrator seemed to forget this detail and would continue the narration in a certain character’s accent even after they’d finished speaking, which could be a bit jarring. On the other hand, the performance was very expressive and made it compelling to listen to.

Star Rating: 4/5

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