Standing for women’s equality is something I feel really strongly about. So reading Naomi Alderman’s deeply imaginative novel “The Power” which charts ten years of a matriarchy’s rise to global power is such a thrilling experience. The novel begins with groups of adolescent girls suddenly finding they possess special powers to generate and control powerful electric currents. They can train themselves to use this electricity as a weapon. As more and more women find this strength awakening within them, control at all levels of society shifts to favour women. But just because women rise to power doesn’t mean that this is a utopia. Soon the battle for dominance leads to the equally horrifying psychological, physical and sexual subjugation of men just as has been the case for women over the course of history.
The story concentrates on several diverse characters including an abused foster child who reinvents herself as Mother Eve to lead a religious following, the daughter of an English gangster who takes control of a lucrative drug trafficking business, a Nigerian man who discovers a flair for journalism in recording the women’s rise to power and a female US politician and her conflicted daughter. Much of the action of the novel takes place in an Eastern European country ruled by a queen named Tatiana. This at first seems like it will be the seed state for the new female order of the world, but it soon experiences heavy conflict in the chaotic tussle for power. These different characters’ stories come together in a dramatic and fascinating way.
There are some quite disturbing scenes in the novel with violence enacted against both men and women. But it’s interesting how I felt conflicted about certain scenes where men were being taken control of through humiliation, abuse and rape in the way many women have been in the past and continue to be in the present. I naturally feel repulsed by any violence, but part of me couldn’t help feeling that such punishment was only just after years of similar subjugation that women have experienced. It’s clever how the novel makes you question yourself and your own values in this way – as well as to what degree we blind ourselves to other people’s suffering when we’ve grown up thinking certain power imbalances are natural.
I found it really effective and moving how Alderman writes about women’s development and the formation of identity. She does this particularly well in describing adolescent girls and the radical changes which occur at this period of their lives. In one vividly dramatic scene she writes: “Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl becomes a grown woman.” This beautifully encapsulates the way we gradually change and how we find ourselves capable of things we didn’t believe we could do before. So the fable of women controlling an electric power can be seen more as the way physical and psychological changes occur in stages of development.
One of the difficult things about considering gender issues is not to fall into lazy generalizations such as women are nurturing and men are aggressive. Certainly all of us exhibit these traits at certain times. A character writes: “Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.” Our society operates so heavily based on gender binaries, but if you examine individuals closely gender just becomes another malleable identity trait. The story has an innovative way of questioning such categories.
Scattered throughout the text are drawings of artefacts which purportedly show how at certain points of history women have possessed this special power. This adds to the feeling that such an evolutionary change is natural. It’s quite a fun way of reconsidering history. The author also compels us to think carefully about what we don’t know about the past: “This is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was.” The novel is framed within a written correspondence between two friends Neil and Naomi. In doing so, Alderman cleverly changes the entire context which the novel’s text exists within just as Margaret Atwood did at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The way that the author has structured this novel elevates it out of a pure fantasy story to provoke compelling questions about the way society is organized and how we might think about it differently.
“The Power” is a thoroughly engrossing story that questions the meaning of gender and inventively inverts the order of society to suggest new perspectives.