History Rewritten

Naomi Alderman, The Power

Viking, 352pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780670919987

reviewed by Jason DeYoung

Naomi Alderman’s The Power is an exercise in what if: What if suddenly one day all of the women on the planet developed a power to shoot electricity out of their hands? What if the power was stronger in some and weaker in others? What if the patriarchy could no longer defend itself? What if women were the ones in power? In Alderman’s persuasive imagining, these what-ifs lend themselves to odd turns and even odder outcomes, yet the final result is an astonishing confirmation of the oft-quoted aphorism ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

The Power is a novel within a novel. It’s bookended with letters written between two historians. The first is by Neil Adam Armon, who is writing from The Men Writers Association to a woman named Naomi, perhaps the author of the novel under review, perhaps not (but rearranged the letters of Neil’s full name can be anagrammatised into ‘Naomi Alderman’). Neil is writing to Naomi hoping she’ll read and comment upon his manuscript, a ‘novelization,’ he writes, ‘of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative’ of the time just before what is called the Cataclysm (to tell you what this is would give away the novel). Neil’s voice is rather passive, and it’s clear that he doesn’t hold the power between the two. Naomi’s voice, however, is more commanding and self-assured. She writes: 'I think I'd rather enjoy this "world run by men" you've been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring and – dare I say it? – more sexy world than the one we live in.’ It’s clear from these opening pages that we’re either in a different world than most of us live in or at some different point in time, perhaps the future.

The bulk of The Power purports to be The Power: A Historical Novel by Neil Adam Armon. Neil’s historical novel is structured on the plots of four principal characters – Roxy, Allie, Tunde and Margot – and traces the ten years prior to the Cataclysm. His history opens with the earliest developments of the power. It is teenage women who first discover the skein, the new organ in their chest that conjures electricity. In both of the most descriptive passages – Roxy’s and Allie’s – their powers manifest under duress: Roxy witnesses her mother’s murder; Allie electrocutes her sexually and physically abusive stepfather, as follows:

Allie pulls up her underwear and her jeans. She leans over to watch. There’s a red foam at his lips. His spine is curled backwards, his hands held like claws. It looks like he’s still breathing. She thinks: I could call someone now, and maybe he’d live. So she puts her palm over his heart and gathers the handful of lightening she has left. She sends it into him right there, in the place where human beings are made of electrical rhythm. And he stops.

While Roxy’s and Allie’s stories reveal of what it’s like to have the power, Tunde’s and Margot’s narratives examine the power from the outside. Tunde at the beginning is a 21-year-old photojournalism student in Lagos who sells videos of power-crazed women to CNN. His plot provides a global scope to the novel. Margot, meanwhile, is a small-town mayor whose teenage daughter’s powers are glitchy. Margot’s ambitions are large, and she uses her daughter and the NorthStar camps that she founds as leverage in her political career. Margot’s plot adds much of the fuel to the Cataclysm.

While the novel attempts to have a global perspective, most of the action is focused in the small country of Bessapara, a new country ruled by women at war with a neighbouring country to the north that holds to the old ideas of male supremacy. The women in Bessapara have gone ‘wild’ using a drug called Glitter, manufactured and distributed through Roxy’s mob-like businesses. Glitter enhances the electricity inside the women but also confuses its takers. It is here in Bessapara that the Cataclysm begins, along with the erasure of male-dominated history and the birth of a female-oriented world with its own female-dominated religion and female-led military.

If there is one thing that speaks truth to us as human beings, it is sex, and The Power doesn’t hold back with its descriptions of emasculation and increased female aggression. Some men find pleasure in the shocks, but mostly the power is used to subdue and damage, and the book includes a horrifying scene of gang rape and torture replete with women photographing the event in a kind of Abu Ghraib-style.

In addition to these graphic displays of sexual abuse, there are subtler shifts in power. One of the novel’s reoccurring intermezzos is the on-air banter between two news broadcasters. At the beginning of the novel, Kristen is the one who reports on the more inane news items; by the end, she is the lead anchor and more dominant, while her male co-host is fired and replaced by a younger man who clearly isn’t as strong as Kristen. It is a credit to Alderman’s narrative pacing and depth of imagination that by the end of the novel thoughts like the following – part of this on-air back-and-forth – have become commonplace:

How many men do we really need? Think it over, they say. Men are dangerous. Men commit the great majority of crimes. Men are less intelligent, less diligent, less hard-working, their brains are in their muscles and their pricks. Men are more likely to suffer from disease and they are a drain on the resources of the country. Of course we need them to have babies, but how many do we need for that?

Certainly these are not that far-fetched ideas; just a few years ago, there were a number of articles on the ‘death of men.’ Still, The Power is an outstanding, well-plotted novel, full of clever twists and humour, compassion and accuracy, and horror. It’s is also a rather prescient novel, as it doesn’t just examine a full-scale war between the sexes but also the influence of fake news and the rise of rulers with dictatorial tendencies, albeit female authoritarians in this case.

Although the novel portrays the corruption of woman through the power, the two historians come to a slightly different conclusion: ‘Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there.’ Some, no doubt, will know these theories of gender, but for the unschooled The Power will dominate and persuade. It is a dynamic and complex novel that reveals the tenuousness of gender and the roles we adopt, and it entertains up to its final gripping question.