Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

It scarcely matters what is actually happening. She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it. She lets the power tickle at her fingers, scorching the varnish on the underside of the table. She can smell its sweet chemical aroma. Nothing that either of these men says is really of any significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs.  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 tells the time period during which the power balance shifted—women (starting with teenage girls and waking in older women) have gained the power to electrify those they touch and, as a result, have become the default stronger, more powerful sex. Suddenly men find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape where every interaction with a woman can suddenly turn dangerous.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Power has drawn numerous comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale—I understand this comparison but it is somewhat misleading. In plot, The Power is the exact opposite of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Rather than men running the world and a shortage of women, the world of The Power flips the power dynamic entirely and places women at the apex of power with men being the ones subjugated. Where the comparison rings true is the message and POV of the book. Alderman was literally mentored by Atwood and both books highlight the evils that arise when men are the sole sex in charge—Atwood by describing the extremes of men in charge and Alderman by narrating what happens when women take over and the gender-roles of power are flipped.

Structure and Writing
Alderman’s writing is well-constructed and snappy—there aren’t long poetic runs of prose, except in the religious “excerpts” where the prose fits the Biblical-style. Despite presenting four major viewpoints, Alderman is able to distinguish the voice and present distinct points-of-view for each character. Adding to the narrative are selected “primary” documents – letters, pictures of artifacts, excerpts from The Book of Eve. This could easily become gimmicky but because Alderman uses them sparingly, they add to the story. It is worth noting that with the use of the female-based religion (venerating the Mother over Jesus specifically), this book could easily become distasteful (or downright blasphemous) to devout Christians. The book is presented as a countdown to some unknown event so the timeline remains in flux—while the book doesn’t need a mystery element like this to be page-turning, it does add an additional element of the unknown—the book had a very clear climax that it worked towards.

Depth and Breadth
Arguably The Power’s greatest strength is also it’s biggest flaw. I was hard pressed to think of any gender role, stereotype, or gender crime that didn’t get flipped and addressed. I’m sure I missed some but the list includes religious-based sexism/gender-roles; how women can “control” sexual impulses (for both genders) by just keeping their (in this case) arms crossed; the plagiarism of women’s writing and the need to use nom de plumes in order to have women’s writing reach a wider audience; the rates of domestic violence and murder of women; gender-based gang violence; women who are opposed to feminism/women having power; women wanting to be men because of their power; women needing to take self-defense classes; parents worried about how girls are being victimized in school; gender roles in newscasting with a patronizing man covering business topics and the giggly woman covering serious topics like bobbing for apples; having a war correspondent be known/popular for how hot she looks when reporting; gender roles within families; having to have permission to travel/having to be with a guardian in public; genital mutilation; internal classes within gender where those who have less of the traditional (or new traditional) features of “masculinity” or “femininity” are judged/less than; and historians interpreting historical artifacts based on the current understanding of power (and discounting that which doesn’t fit).

There was a point at which it almost felt like too much—like Alderman was trying too hard to fit absolutely positively every gender issue into The Power. On the flip side, I know there are many who think this is an impressive feat that Alderman accomplishes and that each of these issues deserves to be mentioned, if for nothing else, than to show the impact misogyny has on absolutely every area of life. At the end of the day, for me it felt like hammering just a little too hard but wasn’t so distracting that it took away from the reading experience for me.

End game
It is easy to rue men’s current leadership and latch on to the idea that if women ran things the world would be better—everyone would be more gentle, there would be no war, and we’d all skip through fields of daisies, holding hands. Had this been where Alderman took The Power, it would have been a weak utopia. In contrast, Alderman’s message (one of the many) may be the idea that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Where Atwood left open the possibility that a female-run world would be better, it’s not clear that Alderman’s world is actually better. Certainly, it’s better for women and you can make a convincing argument that men have had the run of things for a couple millennia so it’s our turn. But Alderman doesn’t buy the idea that women in charge automatically means a more harmonious world. It wasn’t entirely where I expected the book to go but it was the right choice—both logically and for purely for the story’s sake as well.

As noted, this book is a bit gritty and raw in plot—it is unapologetically and in-your-face feminist. I loved it and am glad it was my Book of the Month pick this month—it is still available a la carte to add for future months if you’re a current member. It is also well-crafted and well-written, hitting those notes in my grammar-and-structure-loving heart.

Published October 10, 2017 (in the US) by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Naomi Alderman (@naomi_alderman)
Date read: October 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

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