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The Power by Naomi Alderman
Penguin Books 2017 (2016)
Paperback
339 pages
Speculative Fiction; Dystopian Fiction



What is it men have that has enabled them to fill the role of dominant gender, right across the world? The pervasive nature of patriarchy leads many to believe it is ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘right’ and ‘god-given’. Yet, it is just as clear that when you possess power, you use it – to create and maintain a status quo that benefits you and your group. To do this, you use your power to influence what is recorded, whose voice is heard, what is considered important and what isn’t. But again, what is this ‘power’? What form does it take, what does it look like?

Ask any large group of people whether they have ever felt unsafe walking down a street, day or night, and all the women in the room will put up their hands. Depending on where you live, you might have some men raise their hands too, but I would guess they’d never be white and heterosexual, unless they fit into some other subculture, such as the homeless. Why don’t women feel safe, deep in their bones? I live in a very safe part of the world, yet deep down, I’m always on alert. It’s because of my awareness of my own vulnerability, the knowledge that I can be overpowered, physically, that I can be easily frightened in certain circumstances. The fact that it has never happened to me (touch wood) doesn’t make that bone-deep fear disappear. It is, sadly, a fact of life.

In The Power, Naomi Alderman has created a scenario in which almost all females worldwide suddenly develop the ability to electrocute others through touch. They hone the skill and use it not only to defend themselves, but also to attack and for leverage. The growing fear among men, so accustomed to being physically stronger and the unconscious sense of entitlement, or privilege, that comes with that strength, plays out in different ways. Some band together and become domestic terrorists, further cementing an ‘us vs. them’ gender divide. But really, the choices that the women make now that they have the power does this as well.

The novel is a story within a story. The book begins with two letters between “Naomi” and a man called Neil who has written a novel based on his historical research, as he felt a novelisation would make better reading than a dry history book, especially given the controversial claims it makes. Naomi, another writer, responds with enthusiasm tinged with a hint of patronism. Following this is “Neil’s” novel, and the end is another series of letters between Naomi and Neil. These letters reveal that the ‘present’ is five thousand years in our future, and that the status quo – what is considered ‘normal’ – is quite different from what we’re used to. It shows us the truth of that old expression, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”: when women gain the upper hand, they develop the arrogance, the sense of entitlement and superiority, that are commonly considered masculine traits in our world.

I found myself slightly resistant to this development, because I’d like to believe that women wouldn’t become just like men, but I know that’s not necessarily realistic. It’s possibly naive. This shift is best shown through the American politician Margot, who begins the novel as a mayor and ends as a probable runner for president of the United States (much of the novel is set in the U.S.). The arrogant governor of her state, Daniel, is a fairly typical sort of man for his position and context, but as Margot gains the power and successfully hides it, she gains the sort of confidence that men in positions of power effortlessly embody.

She wondered what she’d have done if they’d caught her, and in the asking she knows she has enough left in her skein to stun a man, at least, maybe more – can feel the power sloshing across her collarbone and up and down her arms. The thought makes her laugh again. She finds she’s doing that more often now, just laughing. There’s a sort of constant ease, as if it’s high summer all the time inside her. [p.64]

Nothing that either of these men says is really of any great significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs. It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth. [p.71]

Later, in the hotel, she [Margot] buys a couple of drinks for one of the junior guys from the American embassy in the Ukraine. He’s attentive – well, why wouldn’t he be? She’s going places. She rests her hand on his firm young ass as they ride the elevator together up to her suite. [p.224]

And there it is: the “power to hurt”. (70) That’s the power that men currently have, and use as they see fit. Women’s power to hurt is limited, and mostly turned on each other – and themselves. We’ve probably all been on the receiving end of the psychological abuse or manipulation that women can wield; add the power to physically hurt and kill just through touch, and women become the dominant gender in a new world order. Some of the main characters in The Power – especially Allie, a runaway foster kid who was routinely raped by her foster-father as a form of discipline, who restyles herself as ‘Eve’, the ‘Mother’ of a new religion – want to remake the world, to reduce it to rubble so that they can shape a new world order and finally feel safe. There is great satisfaction in the scenes where the oppressed women of Saudi Arabia rise up and riot, and the sex slaves of Moldova free themselves and kill the men who have trapped, exploited and raped them. This is balanced by the experiences of Tunde, a young Nigerian man who becomes a well-respected, widely travelled journalist, recording the upheavals in the world for broadcasters like CNN. It is not until he becomes trapped in the new matriarchal country of Bessapara, where men are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything without the permission of a female guardian, that things really, fully turn for him and he is finally stripped of the last of his male privilege, his sense of being untouchable.

Because Tunde is such a lovely guy, and a voice of sanity in an increasingly dangerous world, as readers we see the wrongness of the new attacks on men. In fact, what this world becomes in just ten years after the first girl, Roxy, uses the power for the first time, is frightening. Yet it is not actually any different from what we have now, only reversed along gender lines. The breaking of the world becomes known as the Cataclysm, and through drawings of ‘archaeological finds’, we can piece a picture of the post-Cataclysm world. In this world, men are considered to be “more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing” (p.333) than women: “Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.” (p.333) There is a common understanding now that traits we consider ‘masculine’ are socially constructed, and that boys (especially boys but also grown men) are in their own way equally repressed, unable to show or share their feelings, feeling pressured to behave and even think in certain ways.

The power of The Power, if you’ll excuse the pun, is its contribution to this conversation by making clear how much our cultural understanding of what is deemed ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ is socially constructed. Yet it is also a gripping story, both exciting and tense with hints of thriller. It can be brutal and violent, with a few rape scenes (rapes perpetrated by women) that are just as horrific as when women are the victim. The wrongness of using power against others, over others, to hurt others, comes across strongly: by making women the aggressors, and showing how ‘power’ forms the foundation of oppression and violence, goes a long way to highlighting the problems with patriarchy. The final words of the last letter, from Naomi to Neil, are the icing on the cake: after some back-and-forth arguing over controversial details in his novel, with Neil pushing back – “The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent and the only important thing was – could you and your kin jolt harder? But we don’t have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we’ve based our ideas on.” (p.338) – Naomi ends her last letter with this question: “Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?” (p.339) Right there – the question, both delicately phrased and yet still demeaning to Neil, sums up the experience of women in our own world neatly. And as Neil says in the previous quote, we have to understand our history and how much of what is recorded is controlled by those with the power, before we can enact change and make a better world.

3 comments to Review: The Power

  • I’ve seen this doing the rounds. it had caught my eye and these 5 giraffes help push it up the wish-list. I don’t know if you’ve read Sapiens, but the author briefly discusses possible causes of the unbalance of power between genders. of course physical strength is one justification, but the interesting things is that discrimination of women exist in almost all societies of the world, even isolated one. Maybe it’s not such a surprising fact, but it was the first time I saw it black-and-white and it shocked me!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Alex (The Sleepless Reader), I haven’t read Sapiens, Alex, but it sounds interesting – though sounds like a shame the author doesn’t go into culture and patriarchy more deeply?

    I often think about all this. I’m not all that confident we can ever turn it around, that gender imbalance, because it’s so deeply rooted in culture and attitudes. I think it’s possible – of course it’s possible – but I don’t think people really want it.

    [Reply]

  • I loved this book, for many of the reasons you mentioned. It really made me think about how much women have internalized our powerlessness and our fear of men. And how much men don’t realize the concessions we make every day because they have a physical power over us. Like you I was deeply disappointed by the corruption but agree it’s realistic. The structure and the illustrations felt a little forced and unnecessary, but the question you’ve quoted at the end definitely brings the whole point home. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

    [Reply]

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