THE POWER (A HEAUXS BOOK REVIEW)
Naomi Alderman’s novel, The Power, was released in the UK last year but for some reason we got it stateside last month. I preordered it about six months ago, and I spent the first part of October waiting not-so-patiently for it to pop up on my Kindle screen. The book came highly recommended, blurbed by St. Margaret Atwood herself, and won a few awards in the writer’s native country. Someone told me that a book is “this generation’s Handmaid’s Tale,” and you know that I’m going to thrust my money at said book. And I was not disappointed.
The majority of The Power takes place in our world, except that one day, all fifteen year old girls are suddenly able to shoot electrical pulses (or “jolts” to use the book’s terminology) from their hands. The girls also have the ability to turn on “the power” in older women. Soon, most teenage girls and women have this ability, and they use it for a variety of purposes, from sexual to violent, just and unjust. The schools are segregated by sex, to keep the boys safe, and teenage girls fight in the streets. Oppressive regimes are toppled as women take to the streets and free themselves from the shackles of fear.
I said majority of the book because The Power is bookended by a series of letters from the far future. A male writer has sent this manuscript to a well respected female writer, and they engage in some playful flirting as the woman marvels at the wildness of “men soldiers and boy gangs.” The rest of the novel is put forth as a historical fiction of sorts, with drawings of artifacts that demonstrate this great change in society, from religious imagery to architectural and archeological finds.
The narrative is spread between four characters: Allie, a foster child who listens to the voice of “god” in her head and creates a religious cult around the power; Roxy, daughter of an English mob boss, already tough but made more powerful by her ability; Margot, a rising politician shrewd enough to use this ability to her advantage; and Tunde, a male Nigerian journalist who makes his career by documenting the unrest around the world. It is through Tunde that we see the most change, as he follows revolutions in Saudi Arabia, Delhi, and Moldova (a major sex trafficking hub).
This book was written before the election, and its US release happened to coincide with the Harvey Weinstein revelations, and for most of its length I was enraptured. I was carried away to this world where women have the power. Because of course the literal power in their hands is transformed into figurative power as they begin to rise up against men. The middle section of this book made me giddy. I couldn’t describe it to people (men, especially) without giggling or cackling or wanting to clap my hands like a sassy emoji. It was just so goddamned wonderful! The women in the novel devise ingenious ways to get around the protections men scramble to create, including spraying soldiers with electrified water. I want to emphasize the word “scramble” because the men in this world are caught. All the horror, the atrocities, even the day to day casual sexism women have faced since forever begins to make men the target instead.
And this, of course, begins to curdle. Instead of being a matriarchal wonderland of feminist equality, women in the book quickly assert themselves in the same ways that men have been doing this whole time. Rape, torture, murder, intimidation, sexual harassment: the shoe is on the other foot. Men, now the weaker sex, are afraid to go out at night. Tunde, the reporter, is sexually assaulted in a scene that seems to make parallels to the attacks on female journalists during the Arab Spring in 2011. Female politicians begin seeing their younger male aids as easy pickings for sexual conquest. Male newscasters get younger, more attractive, and dumber. And in parts of the world, ritualized murder and genital mutilation of men becomes a part of the culture.
GUESS WHAT: EVERY SINGLE THING THAT HAPPENS TO A MAN IN THIS BOOK HAS HAPPENED OVER AND OVER TO WOMEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY. Well, except all the shocking.
I understand what is happening here. The power is not just the power to deliver electric shocks. It’s also POWER in the sense of hierarchal power. The author is suggesting that this sort of power corrupts the wielder. She is also saying that men’s power is rooted in their physical strength. The fact that men have always been stronger is what has made them the way they are. And that, I don’t buy. Or maybe I do buy it but it makes me uncomfortable in the way that most pop evolutionary psychology does. Men are like this and women are like this. Basically, bitches be shopping. Is society rooted in our animal instincts? I don’t know.
After I read this book, I spent a lot of time considering the root of power and its expression. Alderman suggests that ultimately the ability to cause physical pain is the foundation upon which we all stand: presidents and movie moguls and comedians and bosses and husbands could knock us for a loop at any time, and it’s only restraint that keeps them from it. And if the power were in our hands, it would only be our restraint keeping us from justice and eventually from corruption.
Alderman leaves us with a real stinger at the end of this novel, which I won’t spoil, and an outlook on human behavior that is very cynical. You’ve heard the old saw about power corrupting, I’m sure, and she suggests that in the end, even if everything were to be wiped away, the winner of the battle of the sexes would always be the one who can hurt the other more. Violence and inequality are baked into the human condition, and no event can adjust the scales to make a world without imbalance.
That’s a pretty big bummer.