I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Naomi Alderman poses the question of what would happen if girls and women suddenly became physically stronger than men, and in The Power, the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies completely overturns the gender power dynamic. Alderman’s world is pretty much the world we live in now, except with the genders reversed: men live in fear of being physically assaulted, they are objectified and when assaulted, are accused of “asking for it”, they are confronted with the glass ceiling at work and are either relegated to reporting fluff news or having their women co-workers or friends take credit for their work. In many ways, it’s a timely and thought-provoking reflection of contemporary society, and a welcome addition to conversations around women’s issues.
But at the same time, I can’t help but feel the story is too simplistic. Gender power dynamics is such a complex, nuanced subject and I feel a simple power dynamic switcheroo fails to take into account the nuance of women’s experiences and the reality of any form of lasting social change. Overturning a long-standing power structure requires an ideological shift, and the mere ability to shoot sparks from one’s hands doesn’t seem like quite enough.
The story is told from four perspectives: Allie, a survivor of parental abuse who joins a convent and becomes a Messianic figure called Mother Eve; Roxy, the leader of a British crime family; Margot, a politician rising in power whose teenage daughter Jocelyn struggles to control her own power; and Tunde, a Nigerian photojournalist and only male narrator. The rise of women into power isn’t an easy transition, and Alderman does a good job of showing the initial resistance from men, e.g. Margot’s political opponent advocating for a ‘cure’ and Margot’s cunning response to position the women’s training centres as helping women ‘control’ their powers. The stories vary in intensity and interest throughout. I personally found Roxy’s power struggles against her father and brother to be among the most compelling storylines, and I wish Margot’s story had been developed much further.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder at how easily women all over the world accepted the consequences and benefits of their power. I see how the Catholic Church still keeps some women in the Philippines hesitant to use birth control. I see how women living in abusive situations struggle to leave it behind, even with seemingly strong external support systems. I see how atrocities of the recent past (e.g. Martial Law in the Philippines, slavery in North America) are still glossed over and its effects ignored by some people. And all I can think of is, will superpowers actually make such a difference? Where are the women who are afraid to use their power, who possibly resist using their power for whatever reason? There are some token pieces of resistance in the earlier part of the book, but overall, it seems like most if not all the women in the world Alderman creates are either radical revolutionaries or more measured revolutionaries, with not much room for other forms of responses.
I wondered if there were women made a conscious decision not to use their powers at all or who set up shelters for men to deal with the psychological impact of the social shift. I wondered about trans women, intersex persons and gender-fluid persons, and if and how the power affected them. I wondered as well about scientists and military strategists of all genders, who somehow couldn’t find a defence against electric jolts other than baseball bats and guns. It’s possible all these were mentioned in the book in passing, but I wish the stories given prominence had a bit more variety in their responses.
That being said, there’s a welcome catharsis in the book’s form of revolution. I especially love that the power is passed on from one girl or woman to another, and than it’s the touch of another girl or woman that activates the power in you. It’s a wonderful metaphor of women’s solidarity being the force than brings about this social change. There’s also an especially powerful scene where a young girl delivering food passes on the power to a woman being held captive for sex, and this woman in turn passes it on to the other women held captive with her until they all as a group turn on their captors and become free. I also like the irony in the frame narrative of a male writer compiling the historical research for his female supervisor who then critiques as unrealistic his theory that at one point in history, men actually held more power in society than women did.
So there’s a lot to like in this book, and the concept it explores is interesting. The story itself dragged a bit at times, and I wish there had been more nuance in the stories being told, but otherwise, The Power is a very timely book and I can see why it won the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an e-gallery in exchange for an honest review.