At my most frustrated, I’ve often found myself muttering to myself, “If women were in charge of the world, it’d be a much better place.” It just seems to me that, if given the chance, if women exclusively ruled and made the big decisions, there’d be less misery, less violence, and less, you know, testosterone-related bad stuff. It’d be better.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2017, 341 pages), addresses just such a question, and I have to admit, I found her take on the subject bleak, to say the least.
In the novel, young women find themselves developing the power to channel electricity through their hands and fingers, as a result of a long-dormant organ called a “skein” along their collarbones. The young women can awaken the power in older women, and soon it’s spreading around the world and enabling women to defend themselves against the violence perpetrated against them by men.
This is good, of course. It’s about time women are able to fight back. But it’s not so simple as that. The Power changes everything. In countries where female oppression is at its worst–Saudi Arabia and India, for example–violence erupts, and women forcibly take control, striking back in long-suppressed rage and vengeance. In other countries like the U.S., the change is more complicated and subtle. Attitudes shift over the years as their power grows. Women’s perception of men change–they’re weaker, and so therefore less intelligent. They can’t be trusted. They’re only good for one thing: sex. At first, it’s gratifying to see the women’s confidence grow, empowering even, but all too soon it goes awry.
At the center of this milieu are Roxy, Allie, Margot, and Tunde. Roxy is a young British woman, the daughter of a crime boss; she uses the power to take vengeance on those who killed her mother, and to move up in the family business. She eventually will become a “soldier” for Allie. Allie is a young American woman who uses the power to escape her abusive foster parents; she eventually settles in a convent, where she bides her time and consolidates her influence, becoming “Mother Eve”, listening to the voice that whispers in her head, the voice of God–“She” has plans for Allie, plans that will change the world. Margot is the mayor of a major city with political ambitions, divorced with two daughters, the older of whom, Jocelyn, has woken the power within her. Jocelyn’s power is somehow damaged; sometimes she has it, sometimes she doesn’t, and feels “abnormal” because of it. Margo wants to do everything in her power to help Jocelyn, to help both her girls, live and succeed in this new world.
Tunde is a young Nigerian man, a journalist who is determined to make a name for himself documenting this revolutionary change around the world; he fails to consider how this change will impact his own life and future, how his very manhood will put his life in danger.
All of these characters, in different parts of the world, will connect and intersect, and bring about the climax of the story (the Cataclysm); each section of the book counts down the time left before it: ten years before, nine years, five years, one year, etc. The novel itself is presented as a manuscript that a man named Neil has sent to an apparently influential woman for her opinion. It’s presented as a historical novel with some archaeological evidence interspersed throughout; it’s clear he’s writing thousands of years in the future from our own time. What’s also clear from the conversation they have is that women are still in control; in fact, they don’t quite believe that it’s ever been different. The fact that men once were the dominant gender has been lost to time. The book is a reverse-mirror of our own society. Nothing’s changed, except the roles have been reversed.
There’s so much to chew on and digest in this book; suffice it to say that my outlook has changed slightly because of it. Perhaps women aren’t better equipped to deal with power. Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with gender at all; it’s the power itself that’s the problem. Perhaps whoever has it will inevitably abuse it, simply because they can. Are women more naturally caring and nurturing? Do they hold the higher moral ground? Not in this book. In this book, as the power surges through them, they turn into the worst sort of men we see in our culture now.
The Power is an unforgettable read, not necessarily because of its literary value, but because of the galvanizing ideas contained within it. I devoured it in two days, and I’m still thinking about it. In the #MeToo era and amid our examination of gender identity, this book will provide plenty to debate and discuss, about how we relate to each other as men and women, and about how we treat each other as human beings.