Rating: 4 stars
Naomi Alderman’s Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning novel The Power has been talked about so much, that I felt like I knew it before I started to read it. The book wasn’t the speculative dystopian novel that I was expecting it to be, though. Instead, I found a political crime thriller that is exciting and tension-filled, making for a pacey and entertaining read.
I haven’t picked it up before now because it won at a time when I was determinedly not buying books, and the reservation queue at the library was a long one. About a month ago, a colleague with whom I’m working on an exhibition lent it to me. It’s very appropriate to the exhibition, which is all about humans’ relationship with electricity. We are electrical beings, as is pointed out early in the novel.
We send electrical currents down orderly runs of circuits and switches, but the shape that electricity wants to take is a living thing, a fern, a bare branch. The strike point in the centre, the power seeking outward.
This same shape grows within us, our inward trees of nerves and blood vessels. The central trunk, the pathways dividing and redividing. The signals carried from our fingers’ ends to the spine to the brain. We are electrical. The power travels within us as it does in nature.
If high voltage current is passed across or through an insulating material, such as glass, such as human skin, the result is a Lichtenberg figure, the image of that branching fern-like shape. Also early in the novel, Alderman makes reference to Lichtenberg figures.
Tunde is recording when she turns around. The screen of his phone fuzzes for a moment when she strikes. Other than that, he gets the whole thing very clearly. There she is, bringing her hand to his arm while he smiles and thinks she is performing mock-fury for his amusement. If you pause the video for a moment at this point, you can see the charge jump. There’s the trace of a Lichtenberg figure, swirling and branching like a river along his skin up from wrist to elbow as the capillaries burst.
I could picture the Lichtenberg figures we’re putting into the exhibition, easily imagining their patterns imprinted on skin like a tattoo.
That quote serves as introduction to what the book is about. An ancient ability in women begins to wake up, and slowly the order of things changes. Alderman takes as a starting point for her speculative fiction the electrical properties observed in Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel, and suggests a way in which the female body might also adapt to share those properties. As more and more girls begin to display this electrifying ability, they wake up the same power in some older women. Not all women have this latent ability, but it soon becomes apparent that all female babies possess the necessary organ and this is a permanent change to the species.
There are echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale in the way patriarchal society attempts to control the girls at first, separating them from the boys for the boys’ protection, and in the way compulsory testing is introduced for female public servants. It’s clear that Alderman is inspired by Atwood. Her writing has a similar edge to it, bright and keen like a scalpel cutting through the flesh of modern life. I also felt how much Alderman enjoyed writing this book. It fizzes with energy, which is appropriate for a book about electricity.
Where Atwood’s seminal work has a geographical boundary in Gilead, The Power is a global story. Women across the world, across religions and cultures, embrace this new found power and use it to free themselves from the shackles placed on them by male-centric traditions.
Alderman doesn’t hammer the reader over the head with the points she’s making. At least, not until the contrived conversation she has with her male alter ego at the very end of the book. Within the novel, she makes no fuss over the way she flips the traditional narrative of women needing to adopt particular behaviours to protect themselves from the, apparently for some, uncontrollable urges of men, or the story of the gutsy female reporter who bags the exclusive and is allowed to run with the male pack because she’s proved herself to be at least not a threat, even if she’s not quite an equal. I imagine that if a man had written this work, there would have been virtue signalling all over it.
Nor does Alderman make this power switch into some kind of Charlotte Perkins Gilman-esque Utopia. The organisation of the newly empowered women is rooted in sham religion and organised crime. Survival of the fittest wrapped up in holy robes is the name of the game, as with many cults over the last couple of centuries. Women don’t use their power purely for good. Often they use it in anger, for revenge, to show men how it feels to be subjugated.
Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries of white male privilege don’t like it. Alderman captures the online world of conspiracy theorists and alt-right warriors pretty well. The chatroom passages are a bit hokey. Maybe Alderman didn’t want to go whole hog with the vitriol and hatred. Maybe, having written it before the 45th President was elected, she didn’t think that the online world would get much worse than it already was with the hate speech against women like Caroline Criado Perez and Laura Bates and the women who dared to agree with them.
I felt a particular revulsion for the character UrbanDox. It can be easy to think of men and women who hide behind an online persona in order to share the hatred stewing in their brains as ridiculous. It’s important to remember, though, that they have a platform and they have followers who agree with them. They’ve been shown to be disruptive through the way their online popularity has skewed the way news is reported and distorted. For me, Alderman captures their essence in this passage:
“See, this is why God meant men to be the ones with the power. However bad we treat a woman – well, it’s like a slave.”
Tunde feels his shoulders tighten. Say nothing, just listen, take the footage, use it and sell it. Make money out of this scumbag, sell him out, show him up for what it is.
“See, people got slavery wrong. If you have a slave, that slave’s your property, you don’t want damage to come to it. However bad a man treated a woman, he needs her in a fit condition to carry a child.”
UrbanDox feels comfortable making this statement to a black man because he thinks he’s in the right. He has a bubble of people around him who agree with his ideas about women and slavery. Tunde, with his belief in justice grounded in evidence, doesn’t know that, in sharing footage of this conversation, he will add more people to the bubble UrbanDox occupies, people who don’t inhabit the online world in the same way, and these beliefs will become normalised among those who feel their privilege is being threatened.
I’m reading into it, I know, and projecting recent events from the real world onto Alderman’s fictional one.
The most exciting parts of the story come at the end. The structure of the book is one of building jeopardy, separated as it is into sections that are a countdown to a brutal denouement. Women and men are equal, it turns out. Power corrupts equally and vengeance for centuries of being told you’re the weaker sex isn’t so much sweet as crispy.
I could have done without the post script. It felt like Alderman didn’t trust her readers to get the gist of the novel, so had to lay it all out for them. I wish that I’d stopped reading at the last page of the novel, because the rest of it took the shine off.