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The Power Hardcover – October 10, 2017
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Praise for THE POWER:
"Electrifying! Shocking! Will knock your socks off! Then you'll think twice, about everything."
"For diversion (also important in these times), I highly recommend two writers of speculative fiction, Charlie Jane Anders and Naomi Alderman."
―Ayelet Waldman, "By the Book" column, New York Times Book Review
"I was riveted by every page. Alderman's prose is immersive and, well, electric, and I felt a closed circuit humming between the book and me as I read."―Amal El-Mohtar, New York Times Book Review
"The Hunger Games crossed with The Handmaid's Tale."
"Narratively complex, philosophically searching, and gorgeously rendered."―Lisa Shea, Elle
"Sometimes lightning does strike the same place twice. Sometimes it strikes a whole bunch of times. In Orange Award winner Naomi Alderman's chilling The Power, women across the globe discover a sudden ability to harness their aggression by inflicting electric shocks through their fingertips. Fans of speculative fiction (see also: Margaret Atwood and Ben Marcus) about empowered youth will be struck by Alderman's speedy and thorough inhabitation of a world just different enough from ours to jolt the imagination. Mothers, lock up your boys."―Sloane Crosley, Vanity Fair
"The Power doesn't necessarily hold the answers to what organizing principle we should rally around instead...It does audaciously depict, however, the most extreme results of a movement that seeks rather than interrogates power: That if feminism has become a means for domination, it has lost its way."―Bridget Read, Vogue
"Richly imagined, ambitious, and propulsively written."―Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic
"The Power is a subtly funny, lyrical and utterly subversive vision of an impossible future. As all the best visionaries do, Alderman shines a penetrating and yet merciful light on to our present and the so many cruelties in which we may be complicit."―A.L. Kennedy
About the Author
Naomi Alderman is the author of The Liars' Gospel and Disobedience, which won the Orange Prize for New Writers, has been published in 10 languages, and is being made into a film by Rachel Weisz.
She was selected for Granta's once-a-decade list of Best of Young British Novelists and was chosen by Margaret Atwood to be part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. She is the co-creator and lead writer of the bestselling smartphone audio adventure app, Zombies, Run! She contributes regularly to the Guardian and presents Science Stories on BBC Radio 4. She lives in London.
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The women in THE HANDMAID’S TALE become, essentially, sex slaves and baby receptacles, while in Alderman’s book, they dominate the world --- physically. Sometime in the distant past, a new organ of the body, the skein, shows up in teenage girls and enables them to generate electric shocks that can maim, manipulate and kill. Soon this capability spreads to older women, abruptly shifting the balance of gender power and the nature of reality itself.
Alderman frames her novel with a satirical device. We are now in a future where women have been in charge for thousands of years, and one Neil Adam Armon, a member of The Men Writers Association (male novelists being so rare and unexpected a breed that they have to be labeled as such), is showing an historical novel to his mentor, an eminent author by the name of “Naomi Alderman.” Neil’s manuscript, The Power, purports to trace the origins of the matriarchy, positing an earlier age in which men were the ruling gender.
The narrative alternates among four main characters, all smart and ambitious, each showing different sides of the march toward a gender flip-flop. There is Allie, who kills her sexually abusive foster father, then escapes to a convent, where she hears voices, heals the sick, adopts the name Mother Eve, and founds a cult based on a feminist reinterpretation of the Bible. There is Tunde --- the only male character of any weight --- an attractive young Nigerian man who becomes the blogger/video chronicler of the female takeover. Margot is the mayor of an East Coast city whose power is activated by her adolescent daughter. She becomes governor, then senator, developing military training camps for girls and realizing that “the power to hurt is a kind of wealth” --- even if you don’t use it. Finally, Roxy, daughter of a London crime family, witnesses her mother murdered around the same time as her skein comes alive. She becomes an international mover and shaker in the trade of a power-enhancing drug, Glitter, until betrayal and mutilation force her back on her own unenhanced toughness.
The structure of THE POWER is in the form of a 10-year countdown --- but to what, at first the reader doesn’t know. The earliest stirrings of unrest are in countries where women have been most abused (Saudi Arabia, for one, and Moldova, a center of sex trafficking, for another), while in the West, media and government alike try to contain and normalize the situation. A sort of Greek chorus is provided by a TV news team, consisting first of Tom (lead anchor) and Kristen (eye candy), then evolving to Kristen (sober new face of the news) and Matt (sweet, decorative, earnest). As women organize, train and terrorize, they evoke an answering response among male extremists, until at last all four main characters converge in Eastern Europe. Women have broken away from Moldova to form the increasingly authoritarian female state of Bessaraba, culminating in...well, that would be telling.
Alderman is a skillful writer whose book bristles with intelligence and wit. Sometimes, though, I felt distanced from the characters by her ironic tone, especially when it’s clear from several poignant passages that she can do more. Here, for example, are Tunde’s notes for the book he plans: “At first we [men] did not speak our hurt because it was not manly. Now we do not speak it because we are afraid and ashamed and alone.... It is hard to know when the first became the second.” And here are Roxy and Tunde, their bodies “rewritten by suffering,” making love: “They move slowly and easily, taking account of each other’s particular pains, smiling and sleepy, and for a moment without fear. They come with soft, animal grunts, snuffling into each other’s necks, and fall asleep like that, legs intertwined…in the center of a war.”
The danger in any dystopian novel, I suppose, is that ideas will overwhelm character and plot. When Alderman returns in a coda to a further exchange of letters between Neil, the supposed author of The Power, and the future fictional version of herself, I found it unnecessarily didactic, if entertaining. Having read the manuscript, “Naomi” is by turns supportive and patronizing (she calls it “a fun exercise” in the reinterpretation of history). She can’t quite believe that Neil’s book is anything other than a heretical fairy tale. How could men, innately kind and nurturing, ever have been soldiers or rapists or pimps? How could the standard history of the world be nothing but a gigantic lie? The point, of course, is that history is fickle, amassing and legitimizing evidence that supports the winners, not the losers.
At the very end, “Naomi” suggests that her protegé consider publishing under a female name. Surely this is meant to remind us of the Brontë sisters, sending JANE EYRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS and AGNES GREY to London publishers under male pseudonyms in the 1840s. It’s amusing, in a ghastly way.
THE POWER is often disturbing, sometimes exhilarating and, above all, a healthy reminder --- particularly apt in the age of Trump, Cosby and Weinstein --- that even if women do not experience male violence in an immediate physical sense, the implied threat is always with us. Often that is enough to keep us frightened, silent, intimidated, self-censoring and powerless.
Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman
The novel is framed as the manuscript of a (subservient) male academic called Neil, writing five thousand years in the future, which he has sent to ‘Naomi’ for review. He is trying to make sense of events that occurred in our present.
The story begins when adolescent girls suddenly develop the power to deliver electric shocks. They can also awaken a latent power in some adult women. This causes dramatic social change, told through the stories of three female and one male characters. Roxy is a teenager from an East End gangster family, Ally, an American of around the same age who is running from abusive carers, Margot an ambitious US governor and single parent and Tunde, an ambitious freelance journalist from Nigeria.
What’s interesting is that not all girls and women have the same power. Some have greater electrical capacity, and some are better able to control and use what they have. But there are also those who have the vision to see how the world is changing and how to use existing structures to exploit it. Immediately power begins to shift.
Women in countries from Saudi Arabia to India rise up. The three female characters all see opportunities – Roxy in organised crime, Ally by starting the religious cult of Mother Eve and Margot by organising a public-private paramilitary organisation. Tunde travels the world documenting change and finds both allies and danger among the women he meets.
The first part of the book also takes a nuanced approach to what the power might mean. At times the power is turned against women. They are barred from certain posts if they have it. There is talk of restrictions and cures. Teenage girls turn on each other. But as their power becomes more entrenched and men begin to encounter the limitations that some women do now (like not leaving home without the permission of a female guardian) it highlights to the reader how wrong and bizarre they are.
As the novel went on though, I found my attention wandering and I struggled to finish it. There are a couple of reasons. The plot loses its way and the ending is a bit of a cop-out. There’s a certain amount of exposition. But the key problem is in the narration.
When I think of the dystopian novels I’ve enjoyed the most (eg 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale) they show the workings of a society through the perspective of one character. You gain a rich, immersive sense of the fear and the humiliation and the tedium they face every day. Here we have a kind of helicopter view. The four main characters and those around them just aren’t that interesting as individuals and their stories overlap in ways that aren’t always convincing.
They are all in positions of power and influence in some way, perhaps because those are the stories that would survive. They are all single at the start of the book so we don’t see how the changes affect long-term relationships and the institutions of marriage and the family (key areas for feminists). We also don’t have much sense of what happens to women and girls who have the physical power but no social or economic capital to exploit.
The book ends with Naomi commenting on Neil’s manuscript, in particular being mildly dismissive of his assertion that men once dominated society, because there is little evidence of it in the historical record. Neil insists that is because those who have power decide what is history. This shows both the strength and weakness of the book to me. It’s a nice reversal and makes its point, but the point is quite an obvious one.
I received a copy of The Power from the publisher via Netgalley.
A longer version of this review first appeared on my blog https://katevane.wordpress.com/