The Power, Naomi Alderman

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) African 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.


The mental load

The Guardian published this comic on ‘The gender wars of household chores’ and fireworks went off in my head. I didn’t know there was a term for the ceaseless mental activity of planning, to do lists, forward thinking and logistics that keeps a house running. But there is and it’s ‘the mental load’. And the fact that mostly, women manage the mental load and mostly, men do not, suddenly explains a hell of a lot. And yes, there will be exceptions on both sides to this traditionally gendered breakdown but I will now be speaking to my own experience.

So, the concept of mental load explains why, in a domestic setting, men can present as so helpless (if one is being kind), or such useless fucking twats, God give me strength, you are slightly less use than a bicycle is to a fish (if one has had a stressful day).

Broadly, whereas for women running the domestic chores is a form of programme management, for men any activity is task based. Thus, you can ask someone to clean the bathroom and literally what you will get is a slightly cleaner bathroom. If you also wanted the towels to be replaced and the dirty ones put in the laundry basket, the bin to be emptied, any empty shampoo or shower gel bottles to be put out for recycling, the bath mat to be cleaned and the towel rail to be wiped down, then each of those sub-tasks needed to be individually identified.

So it is this continuous management of the sub-tasks that is so tiring and which leads to so much frustration. On one hand, the bathroom is clean – you got what you asked for. And that is undeniably true. On the other hand, how can so much that is so obvious have been left undone?  I believe the chore blindness is genuine, and then exacerbated by what are often different tolerance levels to dirt and disorder. But then again – how do you think any of this other stuff happens? Which is why men don’t get the gratitude they expect for having completed a basic chore, and women are left eye rolling and thinking ‘If you want something done properly…’

It also explains Male ‘I was going to do that later’ Syndrome. I’ve called out before that I don’t understand when this period called ‘later’ is, when there are not also a thousand more tasks to be done. But now I understand that of course, there can be ‘later’ if you are only aware of one task at a time, and if responsibility for that task has only been ceded until that one instance of it is complete. It actually annoys my partner that by the time ‘later’ rolls around, I’ve already done whatever he was going to do; not that he will necessarily have told me that he was going to empty the bin.

As well, if your only visibility is of a handful of seemingly unrelated actions, then it’s easy not to consider them a big deal. So what if the sheets didn’t get put out to dry? It’s only when you know that they’re part of a chain of events that will require some re-factoring that such minor issues are a problem. So the fact that the sheets aren’t drying now means that the next load of washing can’t be done for a day or two, which means that the running kit will now not be clean for that gap on Thursday when you had tentatively scheduled a run. So if you can leave slightly earlier then, and shift that, and if Sainsbury’s deliver earlier then you just might…

Years ago, in a bad bit in my marriage, I thought my ex had behaved really selfishly. He had given no thought to ‘us’ as unit. He had only considered himself. And I thought, fuck it, I’m going to give that a try.  I did it and it was hugely, astoundingly liberating. Life got so much simpler when I decided that the programme management of our lives was not my responsibility. I did not second guess the implications for another of my every action, presence or absence. I mastered briefly the fine art of not giving a fuck and It. Was. Awesome. I totally get why men exist in that context and don’t want to give it up. If I could walk away from that much responsibility on a permanent basis, I would. It’s one of the reasons why being single is so fabulous and life affirming.

But sadly, not giving a fuck is unsustainable when two people’s lives start overlapping. If those two people want to get out of the door at the same time for work, a day out or a holiday, then someone has to do the logistical planning and behind the scenes stage management to achieve that. Someone has to pick up the mental load, but at least once you understand what’s going on, maybe you can work towards a more equable sharing of that load. To refuse to take on the full burden feels like being selfish, which can be a hard thing for women to encompass. But I’d call it positive selfishness, a way to counterbalance the negative selflessness that leaves so many women ignoring their own need to have someone else just pick up the goddamn dry cleaning already.

In which I have a new job

In fact, I’m four weeks in. It’s a new role within the same company, but for the first time in my entire career, my job has nothing to do with either content or digital. This job is a further big step on the trajectory away from publishing and towards who knows what?

So now I’m working in the team responsible for coming up with new products and propositions. There’s a commercial aspect that I’ve never had before, and since delivery of any new product depends on lining up the customer care and field ops support as well, there’s another whole different area of the business to get my head around. All this was part of the appeal. I work for a big company and there are vast swathes of it that I never got a look at in my old role.

Just to complicate matters slightly, the hiring manager left before I started, her boss leaves at the end of June and as far as any of us are aware, there aren’t any replacements lined up. Mine is a new role in the team. I have no direct reports but 10 people junior to me who need varying degrees of management. A new product launch is looking like it will be 3 weeks late – I swear this is coincidental.

In all this, I’d say my comfort zone is a short drive away. Right through interview, I still thought that my publishing career was the bedrock evidence of what I can do. But that’s no longer the case. I was hired on the basis of the last three years, not the however many before that. I feel as though I swapped firm foundations for a high wire. As I don’t actually know what my job is and there’s no one to tell me, I’m doing whatever the hell seems to need doing. Every day, I’m flying blind. I’ve put out a lot of fires over the last few weeks, I’ve U-turned on a couple of decisions when I got more knowledge and thanked people for telling me. I don’t know how I’m doing, so I come home some days thinking ‘I got this’ and others thinking ‘What the fuck happened today?’

In other words, it’s standard new job stuff. The fear, the learning curve, the anxiety, the successes, the gradual build back up to confidence, to that state when ‘I got this’ is normal. Currently I’m at a low to moderate anxiety level, which is not only not a bad thing (temporarily), it’s what I went looking for. It’ll either all work out, or I’ll crash and burn. So, ok then.

10 things I have learned at work

  1. How to make tea without a teaspoon. There are never enough bloody teaspoons.
  2. Always make friends with security, the post room and the PAs. They are where the true power to make your life hard really resides.
  3. Lots of smart people together can make a whole lot of spectacularly dumb ass decisions; individually, they’ll all know it’s stupid but the Combined Stupidity Factor will out.
  4. In any shared space, standards will fall to the lowest common denominator. Thus, if you don’t have cleaners who clean bathrooms or kitchens on a regular basis, it will be like living back in halls of residence, only worse.
  5. The first 10 minutes of any conference or video call will be spent sorting out the technical issues and then waiting for the people who are late.
  6. Meetings that don’t have an agenda or minutes are a waste of everyone’s time.
  7. Buy your own stationery/as much kit as you can get away with. At least then you’ll have a good pen and a decent notebook, maybe even a workable phone and (holy grail) laptop.
  8. There is always more work. Put a hard stop in your calendar, go home and don’t check email.
  9. Play nice. Then grit your teeth and still play nice. If you really have to, remind people that you are, in fact, playing nice, and things could get a whole lot worse than this if they want? Then go home and pour a big glass of wine.
  10. This too shall pass.

Easter reading

‘Cos fer I have a long weekend and the only event planned is Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic on Saturday. I saw Daniel Radcliffe in Equus on Broadway not long after he finished being Harry Potter. Richard Griffiths out-acted him simply by being there, and Daniel was rather shouty. But still, there was something. So I’m interested to see his performance on Saturday.

Until then, I have reading planned. Today I finished In the Woods, by Tana French, which I’ve read at least a couple of times before but not for a while. It was a great debut and I realised that she’s very, very good at describing those halcyon moments, the marvellous times that you want to capture and put in a bag that you can always carry with you because you know they won’t/can’t last. She does it with the evenings between Rob, Cassie and Sam in In the Woods and it’s also part of the set up for The Likeness.

Next up is Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington. This is a Persephone book that I’ve been waiting to read because Persephones are always such treats that I didn’t want to waste it on an ordinary day. I’ve been saving Mick Herron’s Spook Street for the same reason. I really want to read it but then there’ll be no more Jackson Lamb books until he writes the next one. I feel I have to keep it until I need Jackson Lamb to save the day.

Next choice is a tie between Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, by Philippe Georget and Good Clean Fight by Derek Robinson. No one does better WWI RAF than Robinson as far as I know, which of course means it’s heartbreaking. But then, French noir is also pretty tempting. The eventual choice may depend on the weather, I might keep the Georget until it’s sunny again and feels like summer.

My latest delivery from Blackwell’s was Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. It’s been on my TBR list from so far back I have no idea why, but it looks like that interesting blend of travelogue and memoir that I enjoy. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Diski, so this will be a first.

I think those will keep me busy but I have re-reads as back ups. Since I listened to vol 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, I dug out Vol 2 in print. And I thought The Gone-Away World might stand up to a second try.

The only thing I’m not sure about is if there are enough hot cross buns to sustain me.


Middle aged fantasies

Picture the scene. Early evening, mid way through a hectic week. A cute Sainsbury’s delivery driver arrives, all twinkly eyes and carefully tousled hair. Your eyes meet as he hands you the cucumber. ‘Is there… anything else?’ he asks. Your heart speeds up a bit. You bite your lip. You shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t. What will the neighbours think if the van stays parked outside? You know better than this, but the temptation is just too much…

Ten minutes later, you’re snuggled on the sofa, clutching a hot cup of tea and catching up on Monday’s Broadchurch while cute Sainsbury’s guy does the vacuuming.

For the sad reality is that by Wednesday evening, Tom Hiddleston could rock up at my front door in a dinner jacket, carrying a bottle of Taittinger and a gift bag from Tiffany; but unless he’s going to put a load of laundry on, empty the dishwasher and clean out the fridge, he can rock off again.

Back in the day, I longed to be told I was beautiful, desirable, irresistible. And I’m not saying it wouldn’t still be nice to hear. But it doesn’t stack up against ‘I’ll do the washing up’ or ‘You have a lie-in and let me know when you want tea and toast’. What would really make me melt these days is someone saying ‘I’ve mopped the floors’.

The reality, of course, is that the Sainsbury’s delivery turns up while I’m in my old sweatpants and carrying a duster in one hand and a bag of rubbish in the other. Eyes do not meet, and anyway I’m so fed up of clearing soggy cucumber out of the fridge that I’ve put a ban on buying it.

Oh, sod the vacuuming. Where’s the remote?

In which I discourse on fashion

Although this could be a short discourse, because from what I can tell at the moment, the current styles are almost universally horrendous.

Let us begin. This season is going big on what I call either Asylum Chic or Jane Eyre’s Lowood Wardrobe. If I wanted desperately to dress like an escapee from a lunatic asylum, then I’d be sorted. This doesn’t mean that the shops are bestrewn with fetching faux Victorian white lace numbers a la Wilkie Collins either.  It means more of a nod towards 80s American schlock horror movies.

The woman in the blue dress is running, running, still carrying the bloody knife, even though she’s not sure what she did with it, but someone sure got stabbed and she can’t stop crying. Jane Eyre has been told to wear the pink one to the 10th annual Lowood TB Survivor’s Reunion.

Still, once you’ve escaped from the madhouse, or extreme Christian austerity, then it’s time to start partying. Is anyone going to a fancy dress party? And if so, are you thinking of costuming yourself as a migraine? Then [trigger warning] look no further…

These are probably designer, because all the most horrible items of clothing turn out to be designer. The high street’s cheap and cheerful knock offs never quite achieve the same peaks of hideosity. Can you imagine being drunk and seeing those dresses? Or hungover? Dear lord, someone pass the Ibuprofen.

Still, even an ex-Lowood girl can’t party for ever, so the shops have you covered for those quiet nights in as well. You know. The ones when you like to stand in the corner, dressed as a lampshade.

The pink one’s gotta be cheesecloth, right? I don’t think other fabrics can achieve that salmonella pink vibrancy.  For me, though, the blue one is the winner here, effortlessly achieving that ‘lampshade in an asylum’ look and so nailing two key trending influences in one garment. I’m sold.