Book review: The Power

The Power

Penguin 2017

ISBN: 9780670919963

Review by E Stolinski

‘The Power’ is nothing less than an instant classic. It’s the sort of book that as soon as I had finished reading it, I wanted to tell all my friends about. Naomi Alderman has written a great piece of feminist speculative fiction with an anti-authoritarian message at its core. It is not surprising that Margaret Atwood and Ursula K Le Guin are thanked at the end, their influences are clear yet this novel can absolutely stand on its own two feet.

The power referred to in the title is the new ability simultaneously developed by almost all teenage girls worldwide to generate an electric current from their fingers. As you can imagine, this event causes a shift in traditional gender dynamics which basically the novel plays with for the next 300 pages. Women worldwide no longer fear men, in fact now they can torture or execute any man as long as they can get close to them.

There are no less than four protagonists in the book. First we meet Roxy, daughter of an English crime-lord, who happens to have a very strong dose of the power. Then we are introduced to Tunde, a (male) Nigerian blogger who rides the crest of the media frenzy about the power by always trying to be in the right place at the right time. Margot is a politician in an unnamed city in the USA who has a lust for power and is also mother to two daughters, one of whose power is defective. Last, we find Allie in a bumblefuck town in the USA and see her escape an abusive upbringing to become a world famous religious guru (Mother Eve) around whom many women cluster.

I don’t think it spoils much to tell you the stories end up bleeding into each other, since you will never manage to guess how! The story jumps around all over the globe from place to place, it’s a rollercoaster ride. The plot unfolds like a fast-paced blockbuster with lots of funny little touches. I read the book in short bursts whilst working and looked forward to my breaks. It reminded me of getting my fix of Twin Peaks season three a few years back. It was a lovely feeling of anticipation waiting for the new episodes to come up on the streaming sites every Monday evening.

Whilst not explicitly anarchist, this novel is asking urgent questions about the nature of hegemonic power, such as who actually wields it and what happens when the status quo is upset. Anarchist principles of mutual aid and solidarity are clearly guidelines to negotiate a pathway through a shattered society, but the problem will always be how to deal with the greedy individuals (of whatever gender) who want to take advantage of a power vacuum. We see this in every struggle – just as a few recent examples I am thinking about Occupy, social centres, climate justice, migrant solidarity and we will no doubt see it in future battles as well. Alderman is not offering any easy answers but it is great to read a novel which engages with such important themes.

Suffice it to say I have only scratched the surface of what I could say about this book. There’s the multiple levels of framing for the novel which I don’t have the space to get into here; there’s the way in which contemporary world events such as rape culture in India, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and fake news in US politics are referenced; there’s a spot-on pastiche of the idiocy of libertarian mens rights movements; there’s the fascinating note about Alderman’s original impulse to write the book based on shamefully patriarchal archaeological investigations of the city of Mohenjo-Daro.

The pace of the novel is unrelenting, and I can certainly imagine given the current #MeToo zeitgeist that someone will want to adapt it for the big screen. A Hollywood version would no doubt ruin aspects of the story but the central theme would be hard to to elide since it is so intrinsic to the story and I would welcome such ideas being brought to a wider audience. Mind you, I would also like Richard Morgan’s hilarious thriller ‘Market Forces’ (in which managers race each other to the death on their morning commute) to get a film treatment and that still hasn’t happened yet.