Published in 2016, The Power has quickly swept up its fair share of accolades. With the support of Margaret Atwood and a nod from President Obama, this book hardly needs help from little old me. But I’m about to give it a glowing review anyway, and make it my first book review of this blog at that, because it has proven to be one of my most powerful reading experiences of the past few months.
Anyone who has vaguely heard of The Power will know that it’s a science fictiony, feministy novel about what the world would be like if women and girls spontaneously developed the power of electrokinesis. (Is that the right word?) This concept alone would be intriguing enough to propel a solidly entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking novel, but where other authors may have stopped at mere girl power (so to speak), Naomi Alderman takes the story in unexpected directions.
The events of The Power kick off in right around the present day, when a fourteen-year old girl named Roxy unintentionally electrocutes a man who has broken into her home. From this chaotic starting point, the novel follows Roxy and three other central characters through the next ten years, as an increasing number of girls and women develop similar powers and female becomes synonymous with strength.
After reading a book, it can be hard to recall exactly what you expected before cracking the spine. I typically avoid reading any blurbs or reviews ahead of time, so I can’t say I had much of an impression of The Power one way or another. Still, I can tell you that I was not anticipating such a moving and provocative read. In the wake of many horrifying accusations against powerful men, I thought The Power might prove to be a refreshing glimpse of female empowerment, of women triumphing over their male oppressors before setting forth to build a better world.
Fortunately, this is not how the book pans out. (I say “fortunately” because what I described would most likely be very boring indeed.) The Power refuses to tell a simple, palatable story. Rather than focusing solely on the issue of gender inequality, it ultimately investigates the very nature of power itself, in its myriad manifestations.
This book made me think that we feminists often like to have our cake and eat it too. When faced with sexist generalizations, we maintain that men and women are mentally and emotionally identical, with only physical differences and social conditioning to divide us. But every now and then, privately, when we witness two drunk guys getting in a fight over nothing or see a young boy playing violent video games, a little voice in our heads tells us that women are fundamentally more empathetic, that we’re less impulsive or aggressive, and that the world would be a more peaceful place if we were the ones in charge. Or is this just me? In any case, The Power presents a strong case that women are at the core no nobler than men. After reading it, I’m left with the sense that women have the same nasty motivations as our male counterparts, but that we lack the power, either real or imagined, to follow through.
Throughout the novel, the presence of electrokinetic power inflates female characters’ feelings of security, independence and ease. Meanwhile, men quickly develop an ever-present sense of dread. Sound familiar? I’m reminded of the extent to which women in the real world are led to view themselves as walking targets, even those women who are larger and stronger than most men. I really appreciated one scene in particular, in which a male character prays for invisibility while passing a group of women. This character, a Nigerian journalist named Tunde, experiences a fascinating reversal over the course of the novel. Male readers around the world can learn from his experience.
What I especially love about this novel is its complex treatment of the concept of power. The novel’s wide scope allows for illustrations of power dynamics in a variety of fields and regions. Religion, organized crime, national and international politics, and journalism are all examined, culminating in a global crescendo of violence. There’s not much hope, and plenty of brutality. Only a few isolated moments of compassion or mutual understanding prevent the reader from completely despairing of the human race.
And yet, somehow, The Power manages to keep the reader entertained. Its relatively sparse prose allows for a chameleon narrative voice that shifts from the colloquial to the Biblical to the academic, all while maintaining a base level of irony. Inserted excerpts from online discussions are fun to read, especially for anybody who’s ever visited Reddit or the like.
I have a few quibbles. First of all, this is the sort of book that makes me wish British publishing houses would just hire me to hunt down all the Anglicisms in their American dialogue. Sorry, but there’s no way any kid from Jacksonville is saying “shall”, no matter how Biblical she’s trying to sound.
I also wasn’t so sure about the letters that frame the novel. These letters, the correspondence of an intriguingly named “Naomi” and a member of the “Men Writers Association” named Neil, establish an inverse future in which women dominate. While I enjoyed reading Neil and Naomi’s debate on gender politics and evolutionary psychology (I was cheering Neil on the whole time), the former literature student in my brain kept nagging at me. Shouldn’t the artistic content of the novel stand for itself, without the support of an academic argument? At a certain point toward the end, the letters began to feel a bit contrived.
Oh, well. Those are very small complaints, and they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Power. I encourage everyone who has ever had power, lacked power, wanted power or been disgusted by power to read this book at once. And if you’re some sort of Martian for whom none of the above applies, you should still read it on the basis that it’s funny and exciting.