Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER is a novel about the final battle of the sexes that results from women undergoing an evolutionary change in which they gain the power to wield electrical current with their hands. Suddenly, men become the “weaker sex.” Women push back until a complete societal reversal occurs, as they gain not just the power to hurt men at will, but all of the other power that comes with it. I found this story, a big ideas novel written in the tradition of THE HANDMAID’S TALE (and as powerful), a work of genius that got me thinking on several levels. The novel came out in 2016 and won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.
The story starts off clunky. A man named Neil, a member of a men’s writing association, is writing to Naomi Alderman, a popular author, in the hopes she will beta read his work of historical fiction. What follows is his novel, told mainly from the perspective of four people: an abused girl who becomes a powerful leader after founding a religion based on a feminist reinterpretation of the Bible; a girl destined to play a minor role in a London crime family, who rises up to become a mafia don in her own right; a female mayor who rises to become one of the most powerful people in America; and a male journalist who travels the world documenting it all. Alderman’s decision to use Neil (and herself) as a device for introducing the novel is a bit off-putting due to the style change and the wait to get down to it, but in the denouement it ties together and really works.
The story of women around the world suddenly gaining power over men initially leads to what one would expect (and hope) to happen. Repressive societies like Saudi Arabia undergo revolutions, men catcalling and sexually harassing women comes to a dead stop, sex slaves liberate themselves, and other events occur that are, well, satisfying to read for anybody who hates these things. All good, right? As the gender reversal accelerates, however, Alderman takes a gutsy path with the novel: Women start to act like the worst of male behavior. Rape, humiliation, stereotyping, subjugation, rewriting history and religion to promote a single gender, stealing creative work, this is what some women do after they get all the power (pursuing a similar premise as portrayed in the film WHITE MAN’S BURDEN). While reading THE POWER, you’re going, hey, payback’s a bitch, then, wow, maybe women really would become the worst of the “patriarchy” if they ran the world (an assertion that power universally corrupts), and then, jeezus, in the real world, women have to put up with a lot of crap. The ending is conclusive but open, and while acknowledging the truth is unknowable, the denouement suggests what happened, or at least confirms what the world is like in the present, in a final clever note among many.
Overall, I loved it for what it was–a gutsy big ideas novel about gender and power spiced with terrific action set pieces. Recommended if you like speculative fiction that tugs your brain strings. If you read it, like it, and want more, TV rights were acquired by Jane Featherstone (Sister Pictures) in an 11-way auction and will be turned into a TV series with global distribution.