While I’m (still…) waiting for my April selections from Book of the Month, I decided to dip into my backlog from last year again. As glad as I am that I’ve finally read Naomi Alderman’s much-discussed novel, The Power, I really wish I had found the time to read this one back in October when it was new. From the colors and sci-fi details on the cover to the otherworldliness of this story, this would’ve been a perfect Halloween read.
About the book: All over the world, women begin to develop the power to conduct electricity through their hands. From a wide range of reactions– panic, discouragement, anger– emerges a new world order. Women upend religion, politics, and social norms as they take back their right to live without fear, although in relatively little time equality is not enough and the women seek to reign supreme. Men are afraid to leave their homes, to speak their minds. As the world becomes more and more unstable in the face of such a sudden and incontrovertible shift in the power dynamic, a major war looms on the horizon, the result of which will determine who will write the laws and enforce order.
“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.”
The Power is narrated in the third person, in chapters that follow four main characters and a few minor ones. The major perspectives are vastly different, focusing on a mayor interested in climbing the political ladder, a newly independent foster child with an abusive past and a penchant for religion, the illegitimate daughter of a gang lord, and a college student who begins reporting/documenting the change in power dynamic after a confusing sexual experience. The first three of these characters are female, and all four are from different corners of the world. The minor characters are friends/relatives of the major characters. All of the chapters are labelled by character name until their stories start to intersect at the end of the novel.
And all of that is interspersed with drawings of “artifacts” with historical descriptions that depict life “thousands of years ago,” which is actually our near future. The whole story is bookended by written correspondence between the fictional man who has written this historical novel and Alderman, a friend and early reader.
What worked and didn’t: the character chapters are easy to follow, though occasionally the narration slips from the chapter’s titular character to someone nearby. The artifact drawings interested and amused me, especially after I read Alderman’s explanation of their realness and significance at the end of the book. They seem randomly placed and only abstractly relevant to the overall story, but I liked them. The correspondence between fictional Neil and Naomi was hit-or-miss: in the beginning it confused me, but at the end, it helped explain the story and give a framework that made certain details more significant. And it ended on a great note about publishing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender in order for your work to be “taken seriously.” I’ve never been more sure about using my own name if I get published.
“There are no shortcuts. Not to understand and not to knowledge. You can’t put anyone into a box. Listen, even a stone isn’t the same as any other stone, so I don’t know where you all think you get off labeling humans with simple words and thinking you know everything you need. But most people can’t live that way, even some of the time.”
There are several great lines about power and gender in this book. The concept of the story is fascinating. But in all honesty, I wish I had just read a 5-10 page sample with the concept outlined and the great quotes listed because I think the benefit would’ve been the same. Most of the book was a boring and even unpleasant reading experience for me.
Here are some reasons why: It’s very episodic, and the tension just isn’t there for me when the plot hops around so much. Most of the characters are pretty meh; I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t really like them either. The whole story is very political, which can feel a bit tedious when the politics are hypothetical dystopian projections of real world politics. There’s a lot of violence that I found uncomfortable to read at times, including limbs torn from bodies, multiple rapes, painful electrocutions; a lot of these things are done for the sake of cruelty and/or sadistic sexual pleasure.
“Power doesn’t care who uses it. […] It just says: Yes. Yes, I can. Yes. You’ve got this.”
The worst aspect , in my opinion, is the feminism. That sounds blasphemous. I know “feminism” means equality for all genders, not empowerment for females. And there are some great lines and points made in this book toward general gender equality. But a lot of the novel takes female empowerment to extremes; it became painful to read about how women would turn the world into a chaotic violent mess if they had the choice to do so. It didn’t feel much like a reason to advocate for more female rights in the real world. None of the main female characters in this book are selfless or gentle or particularly kind, and even when I sympathized with them the thought of making them leaders was concerning.
But the biggest problem for me with the feminism in this book is that it seems like it’s trying to tackle too much. It’s trying to show how harmful to society a dominant gender can be, no matter which gender. It’s trying to show what the world might be like if women were in charge, both in peace and wartime. But the world of The Power is not the same as our modern world, and while it was trying to show these new possibilities, it does so with an eye toward more familiar injustices by pushing (unfortunately common) cases of today’s female victimization to their opposites. And the balance of real and imagined gender issues just don’t quite match up into one coherent picture.
“One had done the thing to a boy because he asked her to: this story holds much interest for the girls. Could it be that boys like it? Is it possible they want it? Some of them have found internet forums that suggest that this is the case.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And I did like parts of it. But in the end it was the sort of book that I liked being able to think about in the aftermath more than during the actual reading process. It’s a great concept, upending the gender power dynamic to demonstrate the need for gender equality, but The Power felt more like a thought experiment than a polished story. I can see why it’s been getting the attention it has, and it deserves the credit for the conversations about equality it starts. But I wouldn’t say I had a fun time reading it.
- Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight is another recent release that turns familiar gender dynamics around to put women in power. This one is also sci-fi, but it’s a lot more adventure-driven than political, and it’s a lot more fun.
Do you have any great feminist fiction reads to recommend for me?
The Literary Elephant