Review: The Power, by Naomi Alderman
When adolescent girls develop the ability to conduct electricity with their hands, the world is astounded and horrified.
Overnight, everything changes.
As the power is passed from woman to woman, men suddenly become the weaker sex and they don’t like it. A fight begins as people everywhere battle for control: of their own lives, their power and even society.
This book is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking I’ve read for a while.
When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she famously stated that she didn’t include anything in the story that hadn’t happened to women somewhere in the world, at some point in history.
I don’t know if the same is true of The Power, but it feels entirely possible. The book is full of women who’ve been subjugated and abused, whether it’s the teenage foster daughter who goes on to become a religious icon in the new world order, or the trafficked women in Eastern Europe who band together to form their own brutal nation.
As the story progresses and society reorders itself around the women’s new power, it becomes increasingly violent and abusive. Men are treated like second class citizens and become the victims of rape. There’s a particularly horrific scene later in the novel when a group of drug using, rebel female soldiers attack a refugee camp and commit some of the most horrific crimes I’ve seen described in fiction.
The story is often shocking in its violence, which is mostly perpetrated by women. Here females dole out punishments in an often detached, emotionless way. We might like to think that a matriarchal society would be a softer, kinder place, but not in The Power.
And that’s the point. The author holds a mirror up to our society and makes us confront its worst excesses. Reading about male genital mutilation and rape is awful, almost more shocking than reading about the same thing happening to a woman, because – horrific though it is – it’s always been normalised to some degree by a society where men have the power and women are the victims.
It reminds me of a scene in A Time to Kill (I refer to the film, but it could as easily be the book). Matthew McConaughey’s character is a lawyer defending an African American man who murdered the white rednecks who raped his 11 year-old daughter. In his closing speech in court, where the father is surely about to be convicted, McConaughey asks the jury to close their eyes as he describes in detail the horrors the child had to endure. And his final line is a punch in the stomach for everyone who hears it: “Now, imagine she’s white.”
Suddenly, every person in the courtroom gets it. If a white man killed the black men who attacked his daughter, the response would be different.
Just like portraying men as the victims of a female-led culture highlights how much women around the world have suffered.
As Atwood does with The Handmaid’s Tale, Naomi Alderman frames her story with a series of letters written far in the future that reveal how civilisation has changed completely to accommodate women’s new found strength. At this point she does labour her point a little hard: describing a woman who reacts with sheer disbelief to the idea that men were once the powerful ones, who formed armies and police forces and were anything other than peaceful, supportive beings.
It’s a simple premise, yet it’s dramatically effective.
The story is told from the point of view of a number of characters, including a male journalist who travels the world seeking out stories of power and change. He witnesses the female uprising in Saudi Arabia, as women break free of the constraints that have always been placed on them. He follows the rise of the Men’s Rights movement, interviewing the activists behind the bombing of a women’s health clinic and embeds himself in the new nation of Bessapara, run by a woman who once aspired to be a pop star but who now leads a band of revenge-seeking victims of human trafficking.
Then there’s abused Allie who becomes Mother Eve, religious leader, and her best fighter Roxy, daughter of a British crime lord who takes over her dad’s drug empire. Ambitious mayor Margot grows addicted to the political side of her power and is determined to help her teenage daughter, whose power fails to develop as it should.
This feminist dystopia is one of the best books I’ve read in ages and everyone should read it, men and women. If you’re a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, this only continues to explore the ideas that Atwood sets out for her readers.
The Power is shocking, intelligent and oh so powerful.
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