Wow. The Power by Naomi Alderman. Just wow. It won the 2017 Baileys Prize and what a fine choice that was. You could call it science fiction but it’s science fiction in the style of Margaret Atwood. In fact, Alderman even thanks Atwood in the Acknowledgments. And, it looks like Alderman won some sort of writing contest where the prize was Atwood as mentor. How cool is that?
The Power is one of those books that takes the current cultural norms and flips them to show just how constructed and absurd they really are. When women everywhere suddenly have this electric power that allows them — like an electric eel of sorts — to generate electricity in their bodies and use it to shock, kill, and even control others (and sometimes heal), the balance of power between women and men suddenly changes.
Women everywhere rise up and take control. A new religion is created in which Mother Eve is the leader and prayers go to Mary because she was, after all, the one chosen by God. At first the new power is all about women freeing themselves from oppression and wanting to create a more just and equal world. But as the saying goes, power corrupts. And soon men are being raped in dark alleys and in some countries they are not allowed out in public unless accompanied by a woman.
Of course men fight back, and woman resist too. But as the power shifts from men to women the scenes of rape, the shaming of men, the derogatory ways in which they are treated, the way in which women appropriate a man’s work — we see this and think, oh how horrible! But of course, the reality is that these horrors happen to women all over the world, right now, every day and the people in power and the dominant culture think there is nothing wrong with it, that’s how things are, it’s the natural order of things, it’s biology, it’s God’s will.
Even the end of the book points out how ludicrous it is. After the main narrative is over there are several letters between Neil and Naomi. Neil has written the book we’ve just read and it is based on a re-examination of historical evidence that goes against the dominant matriarchal paradigm. It is a chilling discussion about how history is read through a cultural lens and the affects it has on how we see the past, ourselves in the present, and what we can imagine for the future.
Naomi argues with Neil that no one will believe his book because his alternative view of history goes against everything they’ve all been taught. But Neil stands up for himself. Naomi reluctantly gives in and then suggests in the last letter that the book would be taken more seriously if Neil would publish it under a woman’s name. And of course, the name on the book we just read is not Neil but Naomi. Yes, it’s a fictional twist but it was still enough to give me shivers.
But the book is about more than men and women, it’s about power in general. It’s also about how we see the world in binary choices and how this worldview keeps us from seeing all the options in between. It suggests we are asking the wrong questions.
The Power is a well-written, fast-paced thinker of a book. Women will definitely want to read this. It might even become a feminist classic. Will men read it too? I hope so. It’s a book for everyone, not just women.