The Power by Naomi Alderman is one of the books that I’ve been looking forward to reading all year. The reviews have been largely fantastic, and the idea is incredibly compelling—what if men were no longer the physically stronger sex? How would that change things? In The Power, women gradually discover that they have developed the ability to send out electric shocks—powerful enough to severely wound or even kill others. This power starts off in teenage girls, who are able to awaken it in older women. The novel takes place over the course of about ten years and follows several point-of-view characters, as events unfold across the globe in response to the sudden shift in power dynamics. (Before I get started on my thoughts, I feel compelled to warn you that if you are sensitive to grim stuff in books–depictions of rape, extreme violence, drug use, genital mutilation etc–it may be worth approaching this book with caution, if at all).
There were so many things I loved about this novel. It’s presented as a novelisation of real, long-ago historical events—the manuscript written by a male anthropologist or historian as an attempt to communicate his research in a compelling way, and submitted to a female agent or editor for a first read. Prior to the manuscript, which forms the bulk of the novel, there is an exchange of emails or letters between the parties. The difference in tone between the two emails really lets the reader know that something momentous is going to happen in the novel—the email from the male academic is overly polite, apologetic for intruding on her time, full of self-doubt. The response, from the female agent, is short and unprofessional—she calls him “you saucy thing!” and states her excitement about the “boy crime gangs” that the novel includes. It’s an incredibly clever way to set the scene.
The majority of the main characters are women, and it’s interesting to watch them as they gradually begin to feel more powerful. For example, a female politician is caught up in a televised debate with a male rival when she realises that she could overpower him if she wanted. That realisation, that physical confidence, gives her the boost needed to hijack the debate and win. In older women, their power and authority comes as a huge surprise to them—younger teenage girls, however, accept it as a natural inheritance, and it is fascinating to see what a generation of women who have never been told they can’t might actually become.
I also really loved the way that this novel dispels the idea that a world run by women would be any better—kinder, gentler, more thoughtful. Literally anyone who’s been at an all-girls school knows that women are often terrible, but the way that power has historically been concentrated in the hands of men means that we don’t see it as much. In this book, some women become dictators and rapists and gangsters and cult leaders. They orchestrate military coups and having underlings do drug deals. Women are not inherently nice in this novel—not nice to each other, not nice to men. In particular, the aspects of the plot set in Moldova—which prior to the change is depicted as the sex trafficking capital of the world—are fascinating and complex. I love reading about political machinations—both real and fake—and reading this novel felt a bit like doing A-level History again, tracing the root causes and outworking of huge sociological change. Of course, that might not appeal to everyone, but I really enjoyed it.
There were a lot of worldbuilding details that I liked. For example, Israel suddenly has a military advantage over the US, because women have (at least in theory) been treated equally in the Israeli army for a long time, thus they aren’t faced with lots of rogue female militias. Similarly, the Men’s Rights Activists that currently hang out in grimy subreddits are granted legitimacy: as women seize power, many more men feel threatened and join their cause. There are excerpts from message boards discussing the situation (plus anti-vaccine conspiracy theories) that are completely convincing. For me, by far the most interesting viewpoint in the novel was that of Tunde, a young Nigerian man who becomes a journalist to report on the power shift. At the start of the novel, he is very excited by all the dramatic upheaval—but we see him wrestling with his own increasing powerlessness and temptation to agree with the MRAs, as the novel progresses. Another interesting detail is the inclusion of illustrations of artefacts, supposedly from long-ago eras, such as primitive training gloves to enable women to consolidate their power. It really did feel like a novelisation of actual historical research.
Rather like with Little Deaths, however, this novel contains an idea that has been bugging me for a while. I am tired of the notion that—free from patriarchal constraints—almost all women would be exceptionally liberal atheists who are very into casual sex. There is a scene towards the start of the novel, set in Saudi Arabia, where the women of the country riot the minute they have the capacity to do so. The riot is not what irritated me. (In fact, aspects of it were some of my favourite bits in the novel). Rather, it was the fact that all the women were suddenly uncovering their hair, wearing tight Western clothing, having one night stands etc. It strongly implies that the only reason that Muslim women might dress modestly or be sexually conservative is that they’ve been oppressed into it by wicked evil men, that the only truly liberated woman is one who shares the author’s politics. That does not square with discussions that I’ve had with Muslim coworkers and friends. In fact, in my current place of work, two of my coworkers are female Muslims—one chooses to cover everything except her face; one wears a lot of miniskirts. Both are clever, independent, single scientists living far away from their families. The idea that either of them is being oppressed into anything is ridiculous. Many women wear hijabs and burkas in the UK, where it would probably be easier for them to dress in Western clothes, as they would face a lower risk of hate crime. The idea that faith-based sexual ethics or modest dress are exclusively a tool for men oppressing women is nonsense. They are often used like that, yes—but frankly it is a bit patronising when women tell other women that they’ve been brainwashed into making bad choices.
Similarly, one teenage girl uses the opportunity to set up a matriarchal cult based loosely on Christianity, but heavily focussed on the worship of Mary and other female biblical figures. Like the riot, that is a totally plausible outcome of this power shift, and a really interesting one. What is less plausible is the knock-on effect that this has on Christians across the world. It is implied that most Christians (including the devout nuns who have taken this girl in) switch within ten years to using female pronouns to describe the person of God—writing Jesus out of the equation altogether. But I don’t use male pronouns to talk about the person of God because I am being oppressed, or because I think men are better than women. I do so because when Jesus lived on earth, He was a man; because God is frequently described as being our Father; because that is what the Bible says. When I was reading up on the author, I discovered that she describes having written herself out of her own faith—she grew up in a religious Jewish family, and in the process of writing one of her novels, she talked herself out of believing in God. I can see why she might therefore believe that everyone else would be easily convinced to upend their worldviews. That doesn’t square with the facts, though, which are that people frequently lose their jobs and families and, in some countries, their lives, because of their refusal to relinquish their faith. It felt supremely unrealistic that people would abandon their beliefs, especially in so short a space of time—it seemed like a failure to understand how important faith is to so many people.
In short, I think this novel does a lot of fascinating things. One of the things it does extremely well is explore the ways that men do still have and (often subconsciously) exploit power over women, even in a relatively more equal society–things like the emails at the beginning of the novel. In particular, the book conveys very well what it feels like to live with the constant possibility of being raped in the back of your mind. I loved how much it felt like real historical research. I am tired, though, of faith being devalued and belittled. It would have been so interesting to explore what kind of effect this would actually have on the church, or in majority Muslim countries—but assuming that everyone will just chuck their beliefs out and start again is wildly unrealistic. I will definitely be looking up Alderman’s other work, because this was incredibly novel and well-written—but I hope they have much less of the “faith is oppression” stuff.