As usual when books are getting a load of hype, I immediately get put off and suspicious. This is especially true of prize winners, as I am so often underwhelmed that I use prize shortlists as an indication of what to skip. But. I was on holiday and, huge rookie error, I ran out books. So I fell back on audio and grumpily decided to give The Power a go, largely on the grounds that unless you know exactly what you want it’s impossible to find anything on Audible.
I ate this up. If I’d had it in print and not been on holiday, I’d have put life on hold so I could finish it.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the premise of The Power is that roughly about now in history, teenage girls aged around 14 or 15 develop the ability to create electricity. The novel is written from the perspective that it’s several thousand years after the initial awakening and a male historian is positing a theory of how the world got to be the way it is in his lifetime. He’s narrating the years between the discovery of the power and some tremendous cataclysm. Alderman plays slyly with the supposed letters between the male author of the history and the woman who he’s asked to read the manuscript. I imagine female authors smiled wryly at these exchanges.
From what becomes known as ‘The day of the girls’ onward, girls are able to use their power to jolt people, heal people, manipulate people, kill people. The girls can show their older female relatives how to tap into the power and bam! Women suddenly aren’t the weaker sex any more. Initial suggestions are that women should stay home and try not to use the power. (Well, of course. Exactly the same as how men now are supposed to stay home and not accidentally rape or beat up any women.) The boys are separated, for their own protection, so that the women don’t accidentally or deliberately hurt them, and governments search desperately for a cure that will get the world back to the way it’s supposed to be. But there is no cure, and this is the new norm.
What struck me very early on is that it felt like such an audacious feat of the imagination. Women! With power! With a strength that was equivalent to or greater than, men’s physical strength. Then it struck me as pretty fucking tragic that I thought it was so audacious. Then it struck me as even more tragic that I will never live to see even equality. But back to the story.
Women turn. Depending on the state in which they live, it’s with varying degrees of violence. Where they are repressed minorities, there are revolts; in the nice, civilised Western world, it’s an opportunity to make money and political capital. Women effect reprisals and it’s hard to read without thinking that the men involved were asking for it. A quick twist of bitter ‘How do you like it?’ Which I think is natural, partly the point and also, inevitably, within the novel it’s the seed that leads to the cataclysm.
Alderman uses the perspective and stories of four main characters to propel the story along. We’ve got a (male) Nigerian journalist; an American politician; a new religious leader, who encourages women to look to Mary rather than Jesus, Miriam rather than Moses; and the daughter of an old school British crime boss. These work well to show how all encompassing the changes are. Putting a female slant on all the main religions, in particular, seems surprisingly easy, just a quick shift of the angle of the light and yes, look at where the light and shade falls now. Exactly where you want it to, or rather where ‘Mother Eve’ wants it to. There’s money to be made from religious supporters.
There are some lovely touches that unfold. A particular US morning TV show recurs, and gradually we see the shift in perceived power and authority between the male and female presenters. When the lead male has an on screen breakdown, he’s replaced with male eye candy, and his former co-presenter, Kristen, gets to wear her glasses on screen. She becomes the main voice, while her cute male junior gets the ‘fun’ slots, giggles and doesn’t know anything about finance or international relations. Nope, can’t see any parallels there at all.
But, as the novel gets darker, there’s also a scene straight out of Greek tragedy, which pivots on the 5th century Athenian trope that women without their legitimate male leader can’t be trusted. In this novel, the violence breaks out when the legitimate female lead is away. It’s a classic hubris and punishment scenario.
Gradually, female dominance edges towards becoming normal, except with tensions and pro-male terrorist groups. But Alderman faces head on the idea that women are gentler and more nurturing, and demolishes it. Women are brutal, they kill, rape, torture and they do it for no reason – exactly as men do now. They do shit because they can. It’s not a better world, it’s just a world reversed, with women abusing their power and the authority that comes along with that exactly as men have done. The counter-argument is always ‘We don’t need to wonder what the men would do – we’ve seen it.’ But it doesn’t stop the women behaving precisely as unfairly. So, in one state, men need a female guardian and she has to authorise their travel. They aren’t allowed their passports, or jobs, or to get together in other than very small groups. They must do what women say immediately, or be punished. As a reader, you can see it’s mad and insane and you think that wouldn’t be allowed to happen – except, of course, that it’s the status quo now in some places and countries don’t intervene because they value political gains more than human rights.
So Alderman is partly making the point that indeed, history repeats itself, whoever is writing it. I don’t think there is a suggestion at the end, several thousand years post-cataclysm (when people are wondering about the significance of the ‘bitten fruit artefacts’, snort) that despite being given another chance, humankind (womankind?) got it right that time either.
The Power is being touted as this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Too early to tell, of course, but it’s a good counterpart to it and I bet reading them side by side would be interesting. Both are mirrors, speculative fiction and cautionary tales.