One of the books which kept cropping up frequently in lots of end-of-year book lists last month was ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman and so it got bumped up my TBR list as one of my not-very-festive Christmas holiday reads. The main concept of Alderman’s fourth novel explores what would or could happen in a world where women become more powerful than men in every sense. Due to a mutation caused by a nerve agent used during the Second World War, teenage girls develop the ability to release electrical jolts through their fingertips which can be either harmless or strong enough to kill people. The “power” eventually spreads and although it is initially used by women as a deterrent against violent and abusive men who have oppressed them, it has far-reaching implications beyond that.
The story follows four main characters: the daughter of a London gangster Roxy Monke, spiritual leader Allie Montgomery-Taylor later known as Mother Eve, US politician Margot Cleary and Nigerian journalist Tunde. The individual journeys of each protagonist address the global consequences of the “power” regarding crime, religion, politics and the media respectively. However, what initially appears to be a story about revolution and liberation quickly descends into something far more sinister.
‘The Power’ is a book which makes you look at everything both upside down and back to front. Men are afraid to walk alone at night, the Holy Father becomes the Holy Mother, women are seen as physically intimidating and hold the vast majority of political and military leadership positions. It challenges the reader to consider whether or not power is misused differently depending on who handles it and how gender is framed in different contexts. Ultimately, Alderman’s message is clear: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rather than building a society where men and women have equal rights, roles and responsibilities, Alderman’s dystopian vision sees women misusing their power in exactly the same way as men did and the results are not pretty. As well as graphic violence, Alderman addresses the way in which women treat men with more subtle condescension, an aspect which she explores very effectively in the exchange of letters between a male author and female editor at the beginning and end of the book.
It came as no surprise to me that Alderman has been mentored by Margaret Atwood and that ‘The Power’ has been favourably compared to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It ranks among the best speculative fiction in that it shines a harsh light on the world as it is now by presenting a future full of unsettling possibilities, asking important and relevant questions about oppression, violence and corruption.