Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

I tend to mostly only post full book reviews (as opposed to my “mini” ones) when I come across a book that I can’t stop thinking or talking about so, reader, you should know we’re onto a good one here! I read The Power by Naomi Alderman while on holiday and finished it last night…I had already recommended it to two people before lunch time today, talking about the book rather than my holiday! I actually even did one thing I never do which was to skip straight back to the start of the book to reread the beginning and other parts of the book. First up, let me give you a brief overview of the book:

The Power by Naomi Alderman is to be released on 27th October – I was provided with an advance copy for review by the publishers.

Plot

As The Power begins, the world is as it is right now. Told from 4 main points of view (a young Nigerian man, a foster daughter who is abused, an American female politician, and a tough London girl with a shady background), we are launched into a new chapter for the world. Girls around the age of 15 suddenly start to develop a power, similar to that of electric eels, in which they have the ability to produce an electric shock from within their own body – a new organ has evolved: the skein. It becomes apparent that the “power” is something that every girl is born with, which awakens in them at around the age of 15 from then on, and that those with the power can awaken it in older women who have passed the age.
We are given an interesting theory as to why the power has developed to do with the chemicals in nerve gases in the war that have built up within the human body. But it isn’t the power itself that is so enthralling in this, it is how it changes the world around us – God slowly becomes “She” rather than “He”; women begin to rise to positions of power the world over; women begin to fight back against the injustices they have previously suffered.
The underlying theme of the book is: what would the world be like if women had the stronger physical power over men?

What I thought

I wanted to do quite an in depth look at this in a different section, more for those that have read the book than those that haven’t, as I imagine people who’ve read it will go out looking for discussions of it like I want to (waiting impatiently for more reviews to come out!), so this will more than likely involve spoilers (warning!).

This book was wonderful – one of the best books I’ve read this year, it has been added to my favourites list already. I didn’t go into it thinking that would happen. It sounds quite sci-fi/fantasy from the descriptions – personally, I like this anyway as I enjoy dystopian world fiction so imagined I’d enjoy it in that aspect. While it does feature a lot of sci-fi and fantasy elements, there’s far more depth to it than that – the characters are well-built, the storylines running behind each character are brilliant, and the underlying morals in the book just give it that something that bring everything together to form a perfect book.

I wish someone had asked me the question I posed earlier as the theme of the book before I started reading it to see what my answer would have been then.
What would the world be like if women had the stronger physical power over men?
The book presents a world in which men at first don’t see the Power as a threat, just something that will clear up in time. It slowly becomes a threat, but the men still, naively, believe that women, being the “softer” sex, won’t use it against them, despite the injustices they have suffered. Then when it’s too late, the world becomes an entirely unrecognisable place, at least, this way round.

The concepts and corruption that develop as women realise how much power they can have over the world were really interesting and slightly terrifying. I was at first shocked as I read some of the things that were being enforced by women to control men. There are some difficult to read rape and murder scenes where women have the upper hand on men. The scenes jar in your head as men are still culturally the dominant gender in that world (as the change happens so quickly) and in our own, so it’s difficult to picture a scene in which men are somehow intrinsically more vulnerable. But the brilliance in this is that it draws attention to the fact that it’s something that’s more “accepted” (that doesn’t seem the right word, maybe it’s more “overlooked” seems right) in our world that women get raped more because men are usually stronger and have more of the “right” to do so. Obviously an extreme example, but reading the book made me realise in more simple, and somehow more complex, terms how the world still works.
Another scene that jarred with me was women in the newly formed nations working under corrupt female leaders enacting such violence on men in terms of laws – men were no longer allowed to drive, men couldn’t go out without a woman’s permission…we find out that later, men start suffering from genital mutilation. I was shocked – they can’t do that, it’s immoral! Until it dawned on me that these things happened, and even more shockingly, still happen to women around the world now. Just seeing the situation turned on its head made it seem all the more shocking.

To be honest, I didn’t get into the book as deeply as others for a while. I was enjoying it, but it wasn’t one I wanted to read every waking minute of the day as I have felt with other favourites. But it was the ending that struck me as brilliant and sent me right back to the beginning. As I’ve said, spoilers of a sort! I realised that the imagery we’d seen throughout the book, which had admittedly confused me a little, had been images from the time of the book – the thousands of years during which the artefacts illustrated were found were following the course of the book, 5000 years after the event – the Cataclysm – had happened. The artefacts, such as one attached to an old iPad , are discussed by the author – the iPad is conjectured as being something to serve food on, with its “bitten apple” motif – brilliant! We were looking back on a civilisation that had been forced to destroy itself to rebuild. It really throws in a spanner in the works of thinking how ancient artefacts we’ve interpreted to be supporting certain theories or used for certain things may be completely different – may just be the Classics graduate in me!
The storyline following Tunde, a young male journalist, shows his work being ripped off by a woman and him being powerless to stop her. The book ends (and actually begins, I realised when I flicked back) with a series of letters between the author and a friend – the author, a man, 5000 years after these events, in a world where men are the inferior sex, conjecturing that once upon a time, skeins didn’t exist and men were dominant. The letters reveal that the book is a partly fictional work based on stories that have been passed down through generations, through nuns in convents (as opposed to monks in monasteries) copying out their religious stories, the stories of Mother Eve (the abused foster daughter turned religious leader), how she performed miracles, how the world as he knows it came to be. It is a dangerous story to tell, and one which his female friend, “Naomi”, jeers at – how could men once have been strong and dominant? In the world they know, women are the ones who need to be violent to protect their infants, female genital mutilation is unthinkable, and, according to her, everyone knows that patriarchal societies are the most peaceful – men are soft and weak and cannot be soldiers. She patronises his work, telling him that it’s a lovely story, but really, will people like or believe it? And really, maybe he should consider writing under a female pen name…
And yet, the book is not published under the male author’s name, but rather “Naomi”  to whom he writes to look critically over his work.

It was a fantastic ending that threw me at first – how was I to know I wasn’t reading real letters?! – then astounded me with its brilliance. The author herself becomes a fictional character as part of her own work, publishing a man’s work under her name because in that world, that’s the way to get your words heard. And that’s what sent me back to the beginning, reading it from that perspective as a retelling of the story that society as they know it has been taught for eons, going against the grain, and unveiling the horrors of what the world really can be, and sadly is, like – just from the other side.

Read it. Go now and buy it, then read it straightaway (…or when it’s published in a couple of weeks). This is the book of tomorrow, today. If I could guess any book I’ve read this year would get big, it would be this one. I’m interested to see where it goes. Whether you’d say you’re a feminist or not, this book is a dystopian world way of bringing awareness to a big issue but is even more than that: an excellent, clever story over the top of that too, good writing and well formed believable characters in a strangely believable world.

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3 comments so far.

3 responses to “Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman”

  1. Jess says:

    Brilliant discussion. I have such mixed feelings about this book though!

  2. Gillian Davidson says:

    Thank you for an interesting analysis. Did you notice that the male author’s name, Neil Adam Armon, is an anagram for Naomi Alderman?

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