>> Saturday, February 11, 2017
'She throws her head back and pushes her chest forward and lets go a huge blast right into the centre of his body. The rivulets and streams of red scarring run across his chest and up around his throat. She'd put her hand on his heart and stopped him dead.'The Power is an interesting exploration of the nature of power. Alderman looks at the idea of what the world might look like if women were more physically powerful than men; if, when face to face and without any weapons, it was women who could overpower and harm men.
Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after - girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light.
What if the power to hurt were in women's hands?
Alderman does this through an almost-paranormal conceit (although she's said in interviews that she chose it because it's something that is possible in nature think of certain eels). Women have a membrane in them that allows them to produce electric shocks. It's never clear if they've always had this or it's a recent evolution, but what we do know is that this ability suddenly awakens in 16-year-old girls all round the world within a very short space of time. And as they spread this power by awakening it in older women as well, the world changes radically.
As the world convulses, we see what happens through a large cast of characters. There's Margot, a US politician. There's Allie, a young abused girl who becomes a powerful spiritual figure. There's Roxie, the daughter of a London gangster. There's Tunde, a young Nigerian man who turns a moment of being in the right place at the right time, camera in hand, into a career as an influential correspondent all round the world. These characters interact and meet each other, but the picture is big and wide.
The Power explores a fascinating idea, but I have mixed feelings about how this exploration was done. A lot of the book was simply showing situations which were the sorts of things that go on today, only role-reversed, which I felt lacked some subtlety and, to a certain extent, verisimilitude. Those things have developed over millenia of patriarchy and oppression. I found it hard to believe that within a couple of years, a population that grew up in a patriarchy would quickly move to the polar opposite. However, these details sometimes did work really work really well to emphasise just how screwed up things that exist today actually are. For instance, in a particularly conflict-stricken part of the world women have started to operate on men's genitals so that erections can only be achieved by the application of an electrical shock by a woman, and in another men must be assigned a female guardian, and can only travel with her explicit permission. And my instinctive reaction of "Oh, come on!" was, of course, swiftly followed by the acknowledgement that this is actually happening today to many, many women. It kind of brought home just how screwed up this was. So in that sense, that worked. The thing is, all but the most disgusting sexists understand this is wrong.
More interesting were the bits and pieces that were a bit more subtly done, such as the changes in how women and men spoke to each other outside the conflict areas. There are these really minor recurring pieces showing a newscast on the television, usually in the background of scenes including one of the main characters in our ensemble cast. At the start you have the distinguished male journalist doing all the hard-hitting stuff and the female anchor doing all the fluffy bits. Gradually, the dynamics of their interactions change, with the woman becoming more and more assertive, and when the male journalist betrays some anger at certain developments giving more power to women, he's immediately replaced by a much younger, extremely handsome piece of eye-candy. By the end of the book, it's the female journalist doing the serious news and he doing the puff-pieces. That's not hugely subtle, but it was developed in such a way that feels quite believable.
My favourite, though, were the letters at the beginning and end. Part of the conceit is that this book has been written a long, long time after the events it portrays, by a male author, Neil. He writes to Naomi, a powerful editor, asking her for her thoughts on it. It's clear that the world these two live in is one where the women have the power, and you really see this through the way they speak to each other. Neil is pleading and flattering, Naomi is patronising and flirty in a really creepy way. And when Neil calls out some of the particularly patronising things, he does so extremely politely, clearly trying really hard not to give offense by standing up for himself. That was extremely effective, as I really recognised it. I've certainly been spoken to that way, and I know exactly how it feels.
The Margot sections were also particularly effective, and some of it felt horribly prescient. There's this debate where Margot does something completely egregious, something that conventional wisdom is certain has lost her the election. She has no chance. And yet she wins, against the predictions of every single poll, because it turns out people want a 'strong' candidate, even if that candidate is abusive and bullying (not to mention, breaks the law) with that supposed strength. Sad.
So a lot of good points, but not a wholly successful book for me. In addition to the lack of subtlety and my difficulties with believability, I felt Alderman completely lost control of her plot in the second half. There was a point where everything became chaos, and also where we went from things sometimes being a bit unbelievable to pretty much everything straining my credulity. The actions that led to the big climactic event (which I won't reveal), for instance, well, I believed nothing to do with them.
In the end, I was glad I read the book. The good stuff really was good, and the discussion it generated in my book club was great.
MY GRADE: I was wavering between a B- and a C+, but I think I'm going to go with the former, because there really was some good stuff there. A B-.
AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I really did not like the narration. Mainly it was some of the voices the main narrator did, particularly the young women (and there are a lot of them). They didn't speak, they squawked, and it all grated on my nerves. I had to switch to the ebook (which basically meant that I ended up buying a book I did not love twice, sigh). YMMV, though: a couple of others in my book club listened to the audiobook and had no trouble with it at all; in fact, they actually liked the narrator.