Fiction – hardcover; Penguin (Waterstones Exclusive Gift Edition); 352 pages; 2017.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I treated myself to the hardcover gift edition (only available to purchase in Waterstones) as an early Christmas present last November and loved the look, feel and weight of it in my hand (there’s something so satisfying about holding a well made physical book, isn’t there, especially if the pages turn and lie open easily and the text doesn’t run into the gutter). The contents, I’m pleased to say, were just as satisfying.
Like most dystopian fiction with a feminist slant, the story owes a lot to Margaret Atwood’s classic of the genre, The Handmaid’s Tale. But in Alderman’s tale, the women have not been subjugated by the men; instead they have achieved an extraordinary level of power, not in the conventional sense, but in a new female-only ability to electrocute people by touch.
[…] a team in Delhi […] are the first to discover the strip of striated muscles across the girls’ collarbones which they name the organ of electricity, or the skein for its twisted strands. At the points of the collar are electro-receptors enabling, they theorise, a form of electric echo-location. The buds of the skeins have been observed using MRI scans in the collarbones of newborn infant girls.
An historical novel with a difference
The story, which unfolds over a 10-year period, is written as though it is historical fiction from the perspective of a matriarchal society. It is bookended by correspondence between two friends, one of whom has written a manuscript called ‘The Power’. (The writer is Neil Adam Armon, which is clearly an anagram of Naomi Alderman; there are a lot of clever jokes in this novel, it has to be said.)
From this, the reader knows that somewhere along the line the patriarchy has been overthrown. The compellingly written narrative works its way, 12-month period by 12-month period, towards that event.
It is told through the eyes of four different characters: Roxy, the daughter of a London gangster, who witnessed the brutal murder of her mother; Margo, an ambitious local politician in the US, who has to hide the fact she has “the power”; Allie, who escapes the sexual abuse committed by her foster father, and reinvents herself as Mother Eve, the spiritual leader of the world’s female population; and Tunde, a Nigerian boy, who becomes a journalist committed to documenting the rise of women across the globe.
Their individual stories are told in alternate chapters, all in the third-person. Alderman writes in the present tense, which can often be wearing, but it works here to inject a real sense of immediacy and authenticity to the narrative, almost as if you are reading factual reportage as events develop. There’s a filmic quality to Alderman’s style, too, and it’s easy to see how the entire novel would translate to the screen.
What happens when women are in charge?
That’s not to suggest this book is simply a light-hearted romp that would make good TV. It’s much more than that. Yes, it’s a compelling, entertaining read, one that I gulped down rather greedily one cold winter’s day, but there’s much more going on here. Reading between the lines there’s a lot of commentary about the current state of the world, the ways in which women often play second fiddle to men, and the political, economic and social structures that are in place to keep it that way.
But this isn’t a feminist rant either. Alderman’s carefully constructed tale shows that power, no matter who holds it, must be handled carefully. It can go to people’s heads, it can be abused, it can be used not to help others but to harm them if it’s not treated as a privilege and an honour to hold. I came away from this book recognising that when the balance of power swings too far in one direction we all lose out.
The Power isn’t a perfect novel. Sometimes it feels too violent (there are rapes and beatings and murders described in vivid detail), but it’s a great conversation starter, one that would make a terrific book club read, for no other reason that it challenges the presumption that if women were in charge of the world it would be a much nicer, safer place. Alderman’s thesis suggests otherwise.