My most awesome friend S recommended this to me. I’d seen it around and wondered about it, but when someone whose opinion you respect tells you that here is a book that everyone should read, you get on it right away.
The basic story is that young women all over the world suddenly begin to display an electrifying super-power that changes the dynamics between the sexes. It tells the story from a few different points of view: Roxy, the daughter of a British crime lord, and Allie an abused foster kid in America; Margot, also American, who works in politics and whose daughter has just come into her power, and Tunde, a young (male) Nigerian journalist. They’re all fairly likeable characters and are all made exceptional by the circumstances they find themselves in. The story is also bracketed by an exchange of letters between Naomi and Neil, the man who has supposedly written The Power as a kind of novelised history (complete with archaeological illustrations) of the time leading up to the ‘Cataclysm’, an event we initially know nothing about. These letters are brilliant in themselves because while we know nothing concrete about Naomi and Neil’s post-Cataclysm world, their exchange quite subtly demonstrates that women are the dominant sex in their future, with Naomi’s condescending, flirty tone (“you saucy boy” and “those feisty men”) contrasting nicely with Neil’s submissive gratitude.
My internal barometer swung through a complete 360 degrees during my reading of The Power. I was jubilant and triumphant as Alderman wrote of women the world over growing in confidence and clawing back possession of their own bodies and minds: women escaping from the international web of sex-trafficking, women turning on the men who beat and enslaved them, women zapping the men who harassed them. I was amused by the formation of all-male film clubs where men could watch movies with guns and explosions to reaffirm their masculinity; and by daytime TV presenter Kristen getting a pretty boy co-anchor, instead of being the eye-candy herself. I was disturbed by Tatiana’s humiliation of one of her decorative male escorts, and by the dead man marked a ‘slut’ on the side of the road. I was appalled by the rape scenes, and then by Roxy’s operation. I felt recognition for Tunde’s mantra of invisibility (“I’m not here, I’m nothing, don’t notice me, you can’t see me, there’s nothing to see here” – something that is very much a part of daily life for a lot of women) and for his growing fear. I felt horror and disgust and, eventually, nothing at all. There came a point where I was just reading about the worst things humans can do to one another, male or female.
Some of my favourite bits were the little, mostly humorous details, entirely incidental to the story, but clever: Naomi’s thoughts on uniformed men; Margot’s use of the word “son”; adverts presenting strong girls as attractive; all the talk in the archaeology notes about the ‘Bitten Fruit’ motif (that cracked me up big time); Kristen being encouraged to wear glasses onscreen; women patting men’s thighs; the sardonic voice in Allie’s head; secret male masses; Tunde’s ‘flattering looking-glass’ approach to Roxy. And, of course, that amazing, kickass, deadpan last question that Naomi asks Neil, that just hangs in the air after you’ve closed the book, and brushed your teeth and gone to bed. None of these moments really lighten the utter darkness of other scenes, but they are a wry nod to the reader nonetheless.
Ultimately, this is a book that makes you rethink everything. It holds a mirror up to our society as it is now, and our history as it has been, women performing many of the acts that men are/have been responsible for in our reality. Femininity comes to represent strength and aggression as they become the dominant gender, and masculinity becomes associated with kinder, nurturing qualities. Because how much of our gender associations are really down to who has the upper hand? Are women perceived as gentler and more caring simply because we have less opportunities or need to display strength? Alderman’s answer here isn’t a clear-cut resounding yes or no, but rather an invitation to explore the idea. What I’ve taken away from The Power is that power always corrupts. There will always be wrongs to be righted, and whoever has the upper hand at any given moment will use their power against someone else to assert themselves, to correct or avenge a perceived wrong, or just for the hell of it. It doesn’t matter who’s got the power really, what matters is that it will always be abused. Women and men are no better than each other, and what one person calls righteous is to another an atrocity.
So now it’s my turn to say: this is a book that everyone should read. It’s clever. It’s funny. It’s provocative. It reads fast and hard. And it has a lot to say.