I have owned The Power since April this year but have only just got round to reading it. At first I was as excited about the concept as everyone else but it also worried me. The idea that Naomi Alderman has taken conventional gender roles and flipped them was inevitably going to interest me. However, I thought there was too much potential for this to go down a violent road that I wasn’t that keen on. I’m happy to describe myself as a feminist and think the fight for gender equality is an important and difficult struggle. I just don’t agree with the kind of militant feminism that exists in certain quarters that believes anger is the answer. I understand there has been a somewhat violent and extreme nature to the feminist movement but times have moved on. We’re not going to get real gender equality with an “eye for an eye” attitude. We don’t need to teach men what we’ve been going through by doing it to them; we just need to teach men to be better. The only people that a more aggressive fight for women’s rights is helping are the so called “meninists” who like to make out feminists hate men.
When I first read the concept for The Power, I was worried that it might, no matter what the message it was portraying, get caught up in the kind of angry feminist rhetoric that I try and avoid. Giving women physical superiority over men is an interesting idea but it raises many questions about what they would do with this strength. One random morning, teenage girls all over the world find that they have the ability to summon an electric force from somewhere deep inside of them to use as a weapon. At first they have no control or real understanding of what’s happening but they quickly learn how to hone their power and are even able to ‘wake it up’ in older women. Soon, the whole of society finds itself shifting as men become the weaker and more vulnerable sex. To begin with, society sees the change as a good thing and oppressed women in foreign countries are able to free themselves from abusive and dangerous situations. To many women and men, this is a positive change to be celebrated. Although, as these things tend to do, it quickly gets out of hand as a group of radicalised women take full control of an Eastern European country and start treating men like second class citizens. In actual fact, the men are being treated in much the same way as women have been treated all over the world for centuries. They are unable to go anywhere without a female guardian’s permission, they are unable to meet in groups larger than 3, and a percentage of male babies are killed to keep the population under control. When men in nearby countries start preparing to fight back, who will come out on top in this literal battle of the sexes?
We experience the changing of the world through the eyes of 4 main characters: Roxy, a young British woman who is part of a prominent London crime family; Allie a foster child who was raised in an abusive home; Margot, mother of 2 girls and a rising star in the American government; and, the only male perspective, Tunde a journalist who travels the world documenting the highs and lows of this new age. All four of our main characters go through significant changes after the power reveals itself. Allie escapes her hellish home and reinvents herself as a religious figurehead of the new church of the female God. She finds herself thousands of willing followers as she spreads her gospel with the help of some handy ‘miracles’. She is joined by Roxy who finds a confidence and strength that she never really knew she had and who uses her abilities to take her place as head of her family business. Margot, meanwhile, worries about both of her daughters whilst finally realising her ambitions to rise through government. She quickly becomes a key figure whilst also skimming money from private military groups hoping to use young girls as world security.
It is, I would say, Tunde’s reaction that is most significant here. For all intents and purposes, he takes on the role of a woman and we see him become more and more afraid as time moves on. He begins the novel as a fairly confident, attractive young man who can charm the ladies with a smile. As the violence gets darker, he soon discovers that looks aren’t always a good thing. Tunde will be the most familiar to any female reader. The point of Alderman’s novel is to take our current society and flip it on its head. We are reading about atrocities that happen across the world on a daily basis but, this time, they are happening to men perpetrated by women. Once the women know they can do what they want thanks to the threat of a shock their desires quickly become more dangerous. There are moments within this novel that are graphic and upsetting. I don’t think this is a bad thing in itself but I don’t necessarily think the consequences of them are explored enough. They are included as shock value but it never becomes anything more. They are quickly forgotten with little time for either the characters or the reader to really get to grips with them.
I think that’s a problem with the novel as a whole, if I’m honest. There just isn’t a lot beyond the premise. It’s kind of gimmicky. Don’t get me wrong, as gimmicks go I’m behind this 100% but I can’t help but wish this book did a bit more for its message. The characters are so thinly drawn that we never really get to know them. We get a basic knowledge but this is a book more concerned about what is happening than who its happening to. Instead of deep insight into the characters we get full scenes of newscasts reporting on world events. There’s not depth here; it’s all just action. Which is why I was so surprised that it won the Women’s Prize. I’ll be honest, I’ve only read two of the books on the shortlist for the 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve only read The Power, the eventual winner, and First Love by Gwendoline Riley. Now I adored First Love and think, despite it’s flaws, it was some of the best writing I read last year. It was an absolute 5* read for me. So, despite The Power having sat on my shelf for months, I was excited to experience the book that was, supposedly, better than Riley’s debut novel. Then I read it.
Of course, I’m not saying that this is a terrible book and I can see why so many people are excited. I mean I’ve never read a book that so perfectly flips gender roles in such a haunting way. As I’ve said, the premise is great and I’m all behind it. I just wish that Alderman had also given us the writing to back it up. Having someone like Margaret Atwood, Alderman’s mentor, give her endorsement on the front feels a little silly to me. Atwood has written some of the most important and well-written works relating to feminism and to even attempt to compare them to The Power is crazy. I definitely think The Power would work better as a dramatisation rather than a novel. It has that kind of visual feel to it. On paper, it just lacks a bit of depth and characterisation. I wasn’t as invested in this story as I wanted to be.