Book Review: The Power
Author: Naomi Alderman
Genre: speculative fiction
Publisher: Little, Brown, October 2017
Hardcover, 382 pages
From the publisher:
In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who lounges around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.
This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer, is not only a gripping story of how the world would change if power was in the hands of women but also exposes, with breath-taking daring, our contemporary world.
Pick up a copy from amazon here: Amazon
This will have spoilers. This is an essay on my feelings after reading the book, not necessarily about the actual story, however I will be including spoilers.
This book has a lot of trigger warnings: Rape, sexual assault, violence, religious cults
The Power is an award-winning speculative fiction taken from current events that explores the idea of power dynamics. It is an ambitious tale that follows the uncomfortable and shocking story of the ten years of a matriarchy’s rise to global power after women have developed the ability to create a physical electric charge. The story is framed by correspondence that introduces a unreliable narrator: an academic and researcher writing a draft of a fictionalized account of “true” events. Because of this introduction, I think it’s clear that the book isn’t meant to tell a compelling story or to explore characters, but rather it’s purpose is more like a dissertation: to deeply explore a single idea. The characters are archetypes and the story is told hurried and over-simplified, which doesn’t work in a straight fiction novel, but makes more sense when viewed from a research point of view.
My thoughts on this book are varied. Over all, I found myself uncomfortable and a little disappointed. The author presented one idea: what if the patriarchy was replaced by a matriarchy? Which is a fascinating premise that promised (I thought) a tale of female empowerment.
I’ll start with the positive first. The first third of the book was incredibly compelling. I loved reading about the early days of discovery, when women were filled with wonder and excitement, and sometimes fear, of their new power. I loved the bonds that were forged between the younger and older women as they passed the power along.
There was a particular scene, wherein a young girl passes the gift to a group of women imprisoned in the sex trade, giving them not only the physical light they wanted in order to see, but the light within themselves to create freedom and to finally have autonomy over themselves. This was beautiful.
Another point that I will include in the positives, though it’s debatable, is that Alderman unsubtly points out that the solution to gender equality is not a reversal of the genders. The Power reads like a cautionary tale: feminists beware! If you take over, the world won’t change at all. Which, I think, is a disservice to the current feminist movement. The point isn’t to make men subservient, or anyone subservient for that matter, but for equality amongst all. Certainly any movement that seeks to dominate is a problem and has lost it’s way.
I had a lot of disappointments. One was the strict gender dichotomy. Once given power (physical), women took all of the power (metaphorical, political, etc.) for themselves, turning into “men”. I use the term loosely because the men in this book had no redeeming or positive qualities. They were greedy, violent, ruled by base instincts, and prone to mob mentality at the slightest provocation. Or at least that’s the version of “men” that these now-powerful women turned into. Women turn into men and men become like women (subservient, meek), with the implication that it is only power that corrupts and makes leaders. To continue with this thought, there was no representation of gender fluid or non-binary characters, which I think is incredibly short sighted when tackling a topic like the powers of gender. I think that the idea that power as a bully stick that automatically forms personality, traits, and habits removes the truth that (1) there isn’t a strict binary, but rather a gradation of gender, and (2) both men and women (and any non-binary) can have complex relationships with power, emotions, and each other.
There was also no representation of any queer of LGBT+ characters, which again, if you’re going to address the nuances of gender power dynamics, this should be a topic. There was a slight nod to the character of Jocelyn as being queer, however she was also the only named character that was defective and damaged, which left a bad taste in my mouth.
I appreciated that the author was not afraid to dive right into the abuse of power or to address that those who are abused can be likely to become abusers themselves. However, this story was a one-trick pony: everyone abused power and power was used to abuse.
The author took the easy way out and had all women respond the sudden use of power in the same way, which is both unrealistic and reductive and completely ignores the intricacies of culture, tradition, age, religion, and personal differences. She attempts to address this by elongating the timeline into a decade to give the feeling that while early in the story women may react differently, once they were used to the power they reacted similarly. During the onset, it was mentioned that some were afraid of their new power and still others tried to remove it, and she vaguely referred to some differences in how cultures sought to control this new power. For example, the US and the UK both sought to ignore and suppress the power, while in Saudi Arabia it led to a new Arab Spring.
Which brings me to another point: the extreme Western bias throughout the entire book. I found it utterly ridiculous and poorly thought through that all Muslim women were just waiting to throw off their hijabs, riot, revolt, and suddenly have sexual encounters with everyone they met. This misses the fact that people, including women, have personal agency and completely ignores the impact of culture on individuals. The idea that once given power over men, centuries of tradition and thought would be tossed out the window is reductionist and telling of the author’s view.
My final frustration was the role of women throughout the book. I found it hard to believe and to stomach that if women were to gain a physical power that could lead to domination, they would immediately ignore everything about any female identity. That, after having been part of rape culture, they would immediately perpetuate it. That they suddenly would have not value for men beyond sperm-donors. That they would no longer value motherhood, partnerships, family, and community. I also found it abhorrent that it was implied men already do not value those things.
I’m not going to rate the book. I think as a conversation piece, The Power is excellent. Alderman points out and prods the problem of extremes taking power, but doesn’t actually offer any solutions. This was a bookclub pick and there were no shortages of opinions and fodder for discussion. I had a lot of issues with the book, but again I think that added to the conversation.
If you’re interested in other books like The Power, I recommend reading the following:
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale: Amazon
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness: Amazon
Sheri Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country: Amazon
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