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The Power

April 19, 2018

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power begins with a letter, but most readers will quickly skim through it and start getting caught up in the revenge fantasy. In this fictional world, women have the power to fight back. They can produce an electrical charge with their bare hands.

The possibilities, of course, are many and obvious. No longer do women have to be afraid to walk alone. No longer do they have to put up with obnoxious and threatening behavior. No longer do they have to watch while men are promoted into positions for which they are more qualified.

Bridget Read, writing for Vogue, describes one of these reversals: “In one genius scene, a reversal of the 2016 presidential election debates so delicious it stings, Margot lets herself do what Hillary Clinton never could. Under verbal attack from her unctuous old boss in a gubernatorial race, she reaches out and stuns him in the chest. Instead of being castigated for it, called a bitch, or a harpy, or a ‘nasty woman,’ the unthinkable happens. She wins.”

Women all over the world discover the power and learn how to use it. The novel focuses on four main characters from different walks of life: the heiress to a crime empire based in London, a female politician in the U.S., a sexually abused foster daughter who founds a religion, and a male reporter from Nigeria.

For me, it was extremely satisfying to read the religious proclamations from the abused foster child. She says “you have been taught that you are unclean, that you are not holy, that your body is impure and could never harbor the divine. You have been taught to despise everything you are and to long only to be a man. But you have been taught lies. God lies within you, God has returned to earth to teach you, in the form of this new power.”

The power is quite literal, and in good science fiction style, Alderman provides a mechanism for its development–her story is that towards the end of World War Two humans developed a way to distribute never-ending protection against nerve gas in drinking water, and that in the process of shipping it to friendly nations a tanker was sunk and the treated water entered the earth’s water cycle. In the novel, “research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women.”

The four main characters interact with people all over the world, and their conversations and travels show how the power affects everyone. In the U.S., women are told to control their power and schools teach classes in abstinence, mentioning a twist on an 80’s anti-drug slogan for satiric effect: “Just Don’t Do It.”

In the second half of the novel, the changes that have been brought about as a result of the power tip the balance until women are in a position to abuse their power, as men are today. Tunde, the Nigerian reporter, finds himself in a country where the Minister for Justice has just begun to institute laws against men, like that “each man in the country must have his passport and other official documents stamped with the name of his female guardian. Her written permission will be needed for any journey he undertakes….Any man who does not have a sister, mother, wife or daughter, or other relative, to register him must report to the police station, where he will be assigned a work detail and shackled to other men for the protection of the public. Any man who breaks these laws will be subject to capital punishment. This applies also to foreign journalists and other workers.”

The reversal is underscored by the reminder that the foreign journalists in the room have “been here since it was a grim staging post in the business of human trafficking. And the reversal is then exaggerated, in good satiric style, by the ensuing conversation the male journalists have, back at their hotel:
“Something’s about to break out in Iran, I’m pretty sure. I’ll go there.”
“And when something breaks out in Iran,” drawls Semple of the BBC, “what do you think will happen to the men?”
Hooper shakes his head. “Not in Iran. Not like this. They’re not going to change their beliefs overnight, cede everything to the women.”
“You do remember,” continues Semple, “that they turned overnight when the Shah fell and the Ayatollah came to power? You do remember that it happens that quickly?”
There’s a moment of quiet.

A series of letters closes the book, supposedly written by “Neil,” a young male writer asking advice about how to get his novel published, and “Naomi,” who offers him advice about his novel—the novel you’ve just finished reading. Perhaps at this point you’ll remember that a letter from Neil appeared at the beginning of the book. Neil’s letters are full of submissive apologies and expressions of thanks, like “Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now … Thank you so much for this and I’m so grateful you could spare the time”. Naomi’s letters are full of condescension, and she ends with a rather chilling piece of advice, asking Neil if he has “considered publishing this book under a woman’s name.” Which, evidently, is what has happened. Clever, isn’t it?

This epistolary ending reveals the full extent of the satire on the use and abuse of power. As Bridget Read says, “it does audaciously depict…the most extreme results of a movement that seeks rather than interrogates power.” So yes, this is a feminist work, and timely in terms of the “me too” movement, but it does not argue in favor of simply turning the tables as a way to right any of the wrongs.

In an interview in the New York Times, Alderman says that as a Jew, she has imagined what she would have done, had she lived at the time of the Holocaust, “but for me the larger question about the Holocaust is not, How do you avoid being a victim? It is, How do you avoid being a Nazi?”

That is the big question of this novel.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2018 4:15 pm

    Abuse of power, once they have it, by members of a formerly oppressed class of people, is a device used before. I remember Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold in particular – full of other interesting bits, too.

    I’m not sure women would be as radical as the men have been. Even with ‘power.’ It will be interesting to find out.

    • April 19, 2018 4:51 pm

      Oh yes, you’re right–Farnham’s Freehold is an interesting parallel.
      I don’t know if “radical” is the word to use about the way some women act in this book. The author says, in her linked interview, that there are always some people who will abuse power, that “there is a small minority of sadists in the world who muck it up for the rest of us.”

      • April 19, 2018 6:00 pm

        I was never entirely sure about Heinlein’s intentions – Farnham ended up with a much younger and comelier wife (and she with an old geezer, if smart survivlist). And the older wife was neatly left in the future.

        Women have been putting up with that kind of treatment, not having much say in it, for millenia.

        People are not necessarily happy with how the Catholic church insisted on such things as monogamy, but it did protect many an older or barren wife from conveniently being set aside. Even in the old testament, and our father Abraham, concubines were allowed, and the concubine’s son got the short end of the stick when Sarah produced an heir.

        So much of the history of the world has been about how to pass on property to the next generation, such interesting bits as royal succession, and entailed estates in Britain.

        Lord knows what really went on behind the scenes! Who got hurried off this mortal coil because someone else wanted their ‘stuff.’ Or spouse.

        • April 20, 2018 8:16 am

          Oh yes. Heinlein intended the commentary on racism and abuse of power. I don’t think he meant his attitude towards women to come through the way it does to us today.

          • April 20, 2018 9:00 am

            Probably not, but it is discouraging how often that attitude was ‘older man, younger woman=okay.’ It’s not entirely unwarranted – women died in childbirth at an appalling rate in most of history, and child mortality rates were high – but it remains mostly unexamined by men in the present day, and comes across as icky. The corresponding attitude from women – picking an older guy because he can provide material things and entry into the world of grownups better than boys do – is also still with us (except not as much, because women realize that this means their best years are spent on providing that man with child services (bearing and rearing them), and then, since men often die younger, living a very long widowhood alone.

            I’ve often wondered about the moment when a trophy wife realizes her bargain is Faustian.

  2. April 19, 2018 9:47 pm

    I appreciated this review of the book. I’ve heard different things about it and hadn’t really decided if I was looking forward to reading it for my book club in a few months, or not. I think now that I am, it sounds fascinating.

    • April 20, 2018 8:17 am

      It seems like a good choice for a book club discussion.

  3. April 23, 2018 8:15 pm

    Did you like it in the end? I just checked it out of the library after going back and forth and forth and back a zillion times over whether I wanted to read it. I don’t, in general, enjoy reading about abuses of power, but I am always interested in authors who can do interesting things with gender and power. So! I’m going to read it soon! Hopefully!

    • April 23, 2018 10:23 pm

      I did like it in the end, but you must remember that I adore satire, and although this begins as a novel, it definitely ends as a satire.
      A satiric ending to a novel is never satisfying. The point is that you have to take your dissatisfaction with the novel into the world and make the world better.

  4. April 25, 2018 9:54 am

    Catching up on posts I missed last week. This has been on my TBR list for a while and I do intend to read it. I enjoyed your review! This would be a great book for my book group.

    • April 26, 2018 12:29 pm

      It does seem like a book group would have a lot to discuss!

  5. April 26, 2018 12:26 pm

    I shared this post with a friend who expressed interest in hearing other’s views. I am sure this will be a terrific addition to her research.

    • April 26, 2018 12:31 pm

      My love of satire sometimes causes me to gush over the criticism, rather than take a side in the argument…

  6. May 7, 2018 4:36 pm

    I really liked this one too. It was well-written and smart


  1. Review: The Power, Naomi Alderman - Reading the End

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