Folks. I’m on a streak. Hahaha. You thought I meant sport. Okay, no you didn’t. It’s a book blog. I’m on a reading streak of great books and it is *so* good and owes to all of your wonderful suggestions, so thank you. Probably also a consequence of having for the first time in my life comfortable patio furniture and so there I am every night sipping red wine, reading a novel, out in the evening air like the spoiled middle class lady that you all know and love. Occasionally I think about higher aspirations and then… I return to reading.
So right, this one. Naomi Alderman’s The Power comes with a heap of comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (about Margaret Atwood, I will have more to say) in the way of some kind of instant dystopian classic. And I’ll grant you it is the kind of thing I can see appearing on a million reading lists, in part for its sheer simplicity of premise, and how incredibly powerful that premise is in helping rethink the present. Right, so the frame narrative situates the book itself as documenting the ancient human race and the time of the Cataclysm (or maybe the break? or the great change? I can’t remember) when girls began to develop electromagnetic powers that allowed them to – at the most basic level – use electricity to zap/kill people. Some more sophisticated ladies figure out how to use the power for mind control and wicked fun things like that. Once girls figure out they can share the power with women, the novel really takes off with the question: what if women had power? (I did warn you it was simple in premise. And title).
From this straightforward question Alderman takes wide range, unpacking domestic violence, sex work, religion, politics, the military, business and law. All in the shift from patriarchal to matriarchal control. In doing so the reader is offered (what really shouldn’t be, but is) a fresh view of how fucking bananas absurd the state of the world is in this real present for women. Where the novel sets up a state – and narrates the introduction of the laws – where men can’t leave their homes unescorted, can’t travel without a female guardian’s permission, the reader at once recognizes this law as utterly and entirely ridiculous. And then recalls that, of course, these same laws apply to women. Or if not in law, in societies where women are made, without the force of state violence, to feel, to be, controlled. At the same time, it is kind of a boring kind of feminism that just flips the tables and says okay now women are also rapists and murderers and anyone with power will exploit that power because absolute power corrupts etc etc. Or not boring, because it did give me occasional pause, but just not a particularly… revelatory set of ideas.
The shifting perspective of characters affords this wide ranging investigation into the branches of societal change a gendered power reversal might impact. I found the shifting a bit choppy in the earlier parts of the book and somewhat disorienting (and not in a purposeful dystopian sort of way, more in ‘who is that again’ kind of way). That said, once the character lines were more firmly established I appreciated the shifting perspectives and the scope they afforded. I would say that none of the characters on their own felt particularly well developed; rather they were stand-ins for their role in the society (the goddess, the military mom, the gangster capitalist). As a consequence, I found the moments of crisis and threat for these characters less riveting than I might if I was invested in their well-being. One notable exception is the male reporter, Tunde, whose motives shift throughout the novel in compelling ways, and whose introduction to the experience of fear is great.
I suppose where my complaint comes in – and this is hard to avoid, I guess – is that this is a book that wants to be be Big and Important and it reads with that sort of drive. Whereas Red Clocks explored the same themes, it did so subtly (and with better writing). I’m not sure whether that’s a legitimate complaint or not, so you can choose to ignore it or not, but when you do read it (or watch the inevitable movie/TV adaptation) you can recall this warning. You’ll feel on every page the sincerity of wanting you to get that this is a book about Ideas.
Oh right. Margaret Atwood. So Atwood selected Alderman to be her mentee. And Alderman dedicated the book to Margaret and Graeme, so I’m guessing they got on well. I’m a cynic, and I know I should just be happy for Alderman, and happy for Margaret that the partnership was so fruitful, but… a cynical part of me wonders if Atwood is so excited about the book because it will a) further drive up sales in the Handmaid’s Tale and b) might distract from the Bad Feminism hoopla of the past years. Or maybe I’m jealous. WHO CAN SAY.