Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER sat on my nightstand for months as it waited patiently to be read. I resisted it because my husband had described some of his responses to the book, and it just didn’t sound like something I could enjoy while actively ingesting current events, with all their breaking news and abuses of power. I finally took it on vacation, because apparently I think too much escapism is…bad.
While reading THE POWER, I often wanted to stop, but I didn’t. It’s not that I found it tedious or boring. Not at all. I was put off by the repeated, often gleeful, rape scenes, including child rape, and the level of detailed violence throughout. The heavy-handed parallels of gendered power, and a few instances where I felt the characters were inconsistent also bothered me. And yet, I was curious to see how each strand of the novel would come together and progress. In the end, I’m glad I finished it, and I do recommend it both as a good read and even more as valuable for discussions about power and delusion and gender and corruption.
Readers of THE POWER should not skip over the “letters” which bookend the story. As in the body of the novel, Alderman reflects a reversal of gendered language and power dynamics back to us in the letters between a tentative writer named Neil and an assertive and kindly patronizing (matronizing?) Naomi Alderman. Neil and Naomi’s exchanges demonstrate the eventual outcome of what the novel’s events build up to.
The novel is structured as a 10-year countdown to a cataclysmic event brought on by the world-wide phenomenon of teenage girls developing electrical charges strong enough to inflict harm and even death. The onset of this discovery feels starkly realistic with talk of experiments and “fixing” whatever has caused the electrical anomaly, as well as the immediate protective response of separating girls and boys “for their own safety.” (This doesn’t protect girls from girls, of course…) There is also the nuance of some girls not having this newfound power, or having an irregular control of it, and some boys having a version, albeit slight, of the electrical charge under their control. I liked that Alderman was matter-of-fact about non-binary gender identity and the various responses society has to the realities.
Events unfold focusing on four main characters whose lives intersect to varying degrees. They go through both moral and emotional adjustments as they grapple with their own and society’s responses to an upended power-dynamic. Alderman creates believable and often uncomfortable decision-making for each main character, and I appreciated the grayness infused in their rationalization for their actions.
As with her 2013 novel The Liars’ Gospel, Alderman explores the relationship between religion and power, and how it can be misused or molded by those with nefarious and even well-meaning intent. Allie, later “Mother Eve,” starts out as a champion for the downtrodden and abused, but soon there are hints that all is not well in her decision-making and emotional life. The use of social media, especially YouTube, in sharing the sermons, messages, and commands of Mother Eve is haunting, considering our current reality.
Her eventual “soldier,” Roxy, is the most interesting character, and the one that experiences introspection, both by necessity and because she sees things with a certain clarity. Her electrical power is strong, and she utilizes it both as a weapon of revenge, which the reader may see as justified, and as the heavy for Mother Eve’s plans, which even Roxy eventually questions. Roxy’s observations and responses are more reliable than Allie’s and serve to reflect where Allie turned away from her original plans. Roxy’s storyline, albeit violent and as a definitive assist to the atrocities over the years, provide support for redemption and maintaining a conscience. Of sorts. It is also Roxy who gives the reader a thread of hope for a (relatively) happy ending, but similar to Offred’s open-ended storyline in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there are no promises.
Margot, a politician whose daughter “gives” her the ability to use electricity, also starts out relatable with responses and motivations that seem reasonable. And she is the character I found most flawed and shallow, perhaps intentionally so. Sucked in by power and wealth, she races past her conscience-guided choices and becomes ruthless and narcissistic as fear and control of and by women, becomes the new normal. Margot is the clearest example of how good intentions by those in power and business on a small scale can go terribly awry for the common people on a national or world-wide scale.
Tunde, a Nigerian student who goes from amateur photographer to popular photo-journalist thanks to a combination of guts and ego, good-looks, and smart perseverance, is recognizable. Again, using YouTube and connections with cable news, he records the world-wide conflicts and danger from a place of luck and privilege, even enjoys them, until he can no longer ignore the reality of what is crashing down around him. For me, Tunde is the character from whom we can learn the most. The tendency to record and comment on arms-length atrocities both large and small will be familiar to many. And while Tunde (and the reader) sees himself as an ally to abused and persecuted women who have new-found power, he doesn’t consistently see his role in creating fear and furor that feeds the worst tendencies on all sides. Even so, his character arc is skillfully written, and he is likable throughout the novel.
A rallying cry we’ve heard a lot of over the last several years is “If women were in charge, everything would be different.” In THE POWER, Alderman disagrees. It’s not gender that creates abuses of power, it is the power itself. In fact, several characters respond with some version of “I do it because I can” when referring to actions both minor and horrific. The contrast between the build-up of power abuse and the thousands of years later mirror-image of today’s society is striking. And painfully familiar.
She also delves into both the supposed “burn it down” solution (epic fail) and the conundrum of armchair “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” claims, and that actions and decisions are less clear when in the midst of danger, fear, and hazy leadership motives. We would do well to at least consider this satire’s points about how we rationalize becoming what we hate before asserting greater virtue. For the opportunity to reflect on my own assumptions about gender and power alone, I recommend THE POWER.
For an interview with Naomi Alderman on BookPage, click here.