So earlier in the week, I posted about the Man Booker 2017 shortlist and today I want to tell you about a prize winner, The Power by Naomi Alderman which won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in June. This year’s shortlist was a strong one, so it did well to come out on top. I’d also read Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Stay With Me from the shortlist; this latter book is wonderful and so I was expecting great things from The Power. I took it on holiday with me and read it in just a handful of sessions (my favourite way to read) and I’m afraid to say I was a little disappointed. For me, it was not better than Stay With Me.
I’m not a huge fan of science fiction; my last foray into this genre was Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, which I think I probably enjoyed more than The Power if I’m honest. Because I’m not a big reader of this genre I find it quite difficult to review. I’m not sure what the norms and expectations are, so the things I might criticise or dislike are perhaps standard constructions in science fiction. For example, when reviewing a historical novel, we expect accuracy, realism, research. When reviewing a novel set in our own time we expect realism in the sense of standards that we recognise as possible. With science fiction, however, it irritates me that all normal conventions are suspended. Perhaps that why SF writers write in this genre, because they are free of those constraints, but to me it seems a bit lazy. I’ll give you an example: I enjoyed Station Eleven but I couldn’t get this nagging thought out of my brain that we were dealing with one small part of the United States, and I just couldn’t quite believe that the rest of the world had been similarly afflicted and could not make contact – pre-electricity societies managed to get around the globe fairly successfully!
However, The Power is a prize-winner and seems to have been universally lauded, most notably by Margaret Atwood (Alderman’s literary mentor) whose ground-breaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale has just enjoyed a very successful television adaptation. The premise of The Power is a subversion of current social norms where men dominate, to one where women discover that they have a physical superiority, an ability to electrocute and disable, even kill, men. The novel begins (presumably in the current time) when women begin to discover they have this power and start to use it in ways that enable them to dominate. The story is told through the experiences of a number of women and a male. First there is Roxy, the young daughter of a London gangster who, once she discovers her power, undertakes a purge of all her male foes, her father’s enemies, and her half-brothers who threaten her, to become the top gangster in her field. Then there is Margot a small-time US politician who discovers she has the power and uses it, over a period of years to eliminate her political enemies and rise to great things. Initially, Margot has to hide her power; society is initially hostile to it, and therefore those who have it, seeing at as a threat which could upset order and stability (yes, much of the novel has to be read as a deep irony). Margot, as a politician is also connected with a number of corporations who would no longer support her if they knew she was a carrier of the power. Third, there is Allie, a teenager adopted into a right-wing southern American Christian family (more irony). She is abused by her adoptive father and in one of his assaults she electrocutes and kills him. She then escapes to a convent from where she morphs into Mother Eve, the head of the cult which spreads the power worldwide. One of the followers of the cult is Tatiana Moskolev, the estranged wife of the President of Moldova, who sets up her own republic in the north of the country and establishes a brutal regime where men are mere playthings, sexually abused and murdered at will. Finally, there is Tunde, a young Nigerian, who when we first meet him is trying to seduce a young woman, unsuccessfully as it turns out, because she gives him a small but still very humiliating electric shock when he makes his move on her. It is clear the power dynamic has shifted! Tunde senses that change is about to come to the world and so he sets about travelling the globe, posting his obervations on the internet and thereby becomes an international journalistic sensation.
The story has a complicated structure, which at times I found difficult to follow. It is very much a satire, but not in the mode of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won last year’s Man Booker Prize. There are parts of the book which are almost too brutal, too visceral, too emotionally raw for satire (maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the age we live in?). At 42 the author is not much younger than me, so I can’t say it’s a generational thing, although I note that among the many other strings to her bow she is a computer game designer. I wonder whether the kind of violence common in that medium means the author has a different perspective (taste?) for use of violence and physicality in art.
It’s a clever book, the idea is fantastically original, subversive (women dominating men!) and mischievous. Alderman is also a very able writer, and it’s an impressive read. I did find the book a page-turner, but it fell off towards the end for me. It just got a bit…silly! But then I also accept that maybe it wasn’t supposed to be credible, and that is indeed the powerful central irony. It’s a good read, but I still preferred Stay With Me for the Bailey’s Prize!
What did you think of The Power? I’d be interested in your perspective if you’re a regular reader of science fiction.
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4 thoughts on “Book review: “The Power” by Naomi Alderman”
I read it and found it a mixed bag. The dialogue at the end of the book and the beginning gave me a better sense of the book than the read itself , if that makes sense? I read sci fi a lot and so I’m used to the style but I did feel it was brutal, more brutal than the handmaids tale where the language used felt less visceral but conveying similar atrocities. It gave me lots to think about though.
Totally agree, Sheila – the bookend bits of dialogue were my favourite parts! Yes, a real mixed bag. My book group felt it was something of a missed opportunity.