One thing’s for sure, The Power (2016 in the UK, Oct 2017 in the US) demands attention. Margaret Atwood has given it her blessing and I’ll eat my hat if The Power doesn’t have its own Netflix series sometime soon. Naomi Alderman could well be the next big name in subversive, feminist fiction.
The Power asks — what would happen if all women could physically dominate men? Over five years, Alderman answers that question and the answer is explosive, bloody, wild and thought-provoking.
One day, across the globe, fifteen-year-old girls realise they have electrical power in their fingertips. For some of them it’s strong enough to kill a man with one blow, or rather, one jolt. As the world awakens to this new reality, its leaders desperately try to provide answers. Is it a virus, a disease, a religious blight — can it be cured? But as adults wrangle with the problem, girls are growing stronger, honing their power and learning how to control it. What’s more, they can pass the power on to older women.
Soon, boys have to be protected in single-sex schools and in parts of the world where women have always been repressed, mass riots break out. In Riyadh, women flood the streets, setting fire to the cars they never drove. In Eastern Europe, former sex slaves practice until they are ready to strike their attackers.
Alderman tells her story through the perspective of five characters who, between them, provide a wide vista of the new world. First, there’s Allie, an abused foster-child who joins a convent of women where she develops gifts that mark her as a leader. Responding to prophetic voices in her mind she re-casts herself as “Mother Eve” and decides that to protect herself and all womankind, she must “own the place.”
Then there’s Roxy, a straight-talking Brit, daughter of a big-time gangster. Roxy has the strongest power anyone’s ever seen and when her brother is horrifically abused by a group of girls, it’s her chance to step up and take the family throne. She’s a bit too tough, a bit too plucky to be relatable or realistic, but it doesn’t stop her being one of the most enjoyable characters of the book.
The reader gains a male perspective from Tunde, a teenager who takes his life into his hands when he decides to document the changing world, working with the big news agencies as a roving reporter. Tunde provides some of the story’s most interesting reflections as he oscillates between fear, respect, lust, and anger. In Tunde, Alderman illuminates the plight of the “weaker party” — the person who in any given situation is vulnerable due to physical inferiority.
Finally, there’s Margot Cleary, an ambitious governor who uses the chaos to propel her career. In doing so she instigates a network of training camps across America in which girls train to use and control their power for their own good, and the good of the nation. Margot provides a much-needed adult perspective, demonstrating that although the power is a youthful gift, the older generation will also bend it to their advantage. She is a complex mix of protective mother and ruthless leader, the reader is never sure of her true motivations.
The Power is clever — though the really clever stuff bookends the story. It is the opening and closing segments that reveal the wittiness and the ingenuousness of Alderman’s vision. It’s here that she has the reader questioning, “Is this what would happen? Is this how people would react?” Often the answer is, “I hope not, but probably.”
Alderman’s scope is impressive, covering politics, religion, playground antics and personal relationships. As the world’s leaders reel she also zooms in on not-so-petty squabbles between school girls, fraught mother-daughter relationships and sibling rivalry. Alderman posits what would happen if the power balance between genders was switched and she gives us answers, and lots of them. There’s no sitting on the fence here.
The middle of The Power is less thoughtful. The story cascades into a wild and bloody adventure of female power and the abuse of power, scanning the globe but centering in Eastern Europe where a female leader creates a new nation and prepares to go to war. Terrible atrocities of a shocking, often sexual nature, are documented in gory detail by Tunde who chooses to focus on the volatile region. The grubbier parts of life — sexual abuse, drugs, and violence — are brought to the fore as centuries worth of pent-up rage spill forth.
At this point I wondered if Alderman could possibly tie her story together. It felt as if things had gone irrevocably awry and that she’d taken the adventure too far at the expense of the story’s more interesting concepts. Though she does gradually draw the characters together I grew a little tired of the extravagance of the thing and its larger than life characters.
But credit where credit’s due. Alderman pulls off a spectacular ending, bringing the story right back to the big hitting questions, the ones that leave the reader reeling and questioning — “what would I do?” The big finale is not particularly subtle. It’s clear what questions Alderman is asking and it’s clear she is deliberately provoking us to ask and answer. But that’s OK. The Power isn’t a subtle book, but it is a good one.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman, has a relatively simple concept at its core: what would the world be like if women were suddenly more physically dominant/dangerous than men? The exploration of this concept is anything but simple, though, leading to a mostly compelling read.
The vehicle for the sudden societal upheaval is a newly-discovered/awakened organ (called “the skein”) in women that creates electrical power, akin to an electric eel. At first it manifests itself only in teen girls, but soon it’s discovered that they can “awaken” the power in older women as well. Power levels and depth of control vary on an individual basis — some women can call it up at will, others find it more frustratingly slippery; some can cause pain, other can kill.
Alderman uses shifting POVs to take us chronologically from the power’s arrival over the span of about a decade (with a larger time span covered by a narrative frame). The POVs include:
- Allie: a teen girl who hears a voice in her head who guides her in using the power to escape an abusive foster home and become “Mother Eve” — the leader of a new religious movement focuses on women
- Roxy: the rough-and-tough daughter of an English crime boss and whose power is unusually strong
- Margot: a mayor who uses both her own power and the social chaos to climb up in the world and to protect her daughter, whose own ability is scattershot
- Tunde: the one male POV, Tunde is a young Nigerian journalist (in the modern form of the word) who risks his life multiple times to report on how the power is roiling the world
The varied POVs allow Alderman to potentially present the impact of the power across a spectrum: race, class, geography. In one scene we might be listening in on a meeting of Western power brokers (governors, media elites), in another marching with a group of women in Saudi Arabia, in another mingling at a part in the newly-formed women’s country of Bessapara. Alderman does a nice job of zooming in and out — showing us the power’s impact on both the individual and the global level, the personal and the political.
Chronologically, we watch as characters and institutions/governments first deny the power (an internet hoax), then try to control it via legislation and social stricture even as they try to cure it, then, for some, go to out and out war with it (literal war, not metaphorical war). Gender roles/dynamics shift and often utterly reverse. Now it is boys who have to be careful about going out alone at night; now it is women soldiers we see performing horrific atrocities, including rape (anyone expecting a female Utopia will be sorely disappointed).
“Concept” novels sometimes suffer in their characters and/or stories. Certainly that isn’t the case with the characters in The Power. Roxy in particular is a vibrant, sharply delineated, and utterly engrossing character. Tunde is a good match, and I found myself incredibly anxious for him on multiple occasions, especially as he was the sole male POV — I was not all sure Alderman wouldn’t kill him off (nor will I reveal whether she does nor not). That depth of characterization is even more impressive, given how easy it would have been to make him a simple plot convenience — “Here’s what’s happening in India! Look at what’s going on in Africa!”
It’s good that the characterization is strong, because the concept does only carry so far. Basically, it boils down to the old cliché about power and corruption, and it all happens pretty quickly here, sometimes feeling as if that aspect is put a bit on autopilot. (A feeling exacerbated by relatively thin worldbuilding.) The first half of the book is slower than the second, and I can see some people complaining it doesn’t “get going” for a while, but in some ways I preferred the first half, where the power’s repercussions are still complex and moving down uncertain paths toward uncertain ends. Past a certain point, one sort of sees where it’s all going, gets the point that nothing happening here hasn’t happened/isn’t happening now with women (i.e., women live in a dystopia today). And while, as noted, there is the potential for examination of race and class in this dynamic, it really doesn’t get explored in any depth. The frame story, meanwhile, is interesting in some ways, but I felt Alderman wrote past her ending, with the end frame being a bit too on the nose.
So the concept is intriguing and thought provoking, but it’s mostly thanks to the sharp characterization and welcome bits of humor that The Power kept me going.