I’ve just finished my latest read, The Power by a fellow Brit, Naomi Alderman. A novel which imagines teenage girls, and women, to have immense physical power. With a flick of their fingers, they can cause agonising pain and even death – and so change the world order.
The book was recommended to me by Michael Herrmann, the owner of Gibson’s Bookstore, my wonderful local bookstore in Concord, NH. After last year’s election, I asked him if he’d read any fiction that he felt captured the spirit of our times and he pointed me in the direction of Alderman’s book. He couldn’t have anticipated the #metoo movement but, as it turns out, the book is even more relevant this year than last.
I love the idea of the Margaret Atwood, the queen of speculative fiction, mentored Naomi Alderman. Mentoring doesn’t seem to be around as much as it used to be, not for writers anyway, and it’s truly a gift. It’s wonderful to see how Alderman has learnt from Atwood whilst making the genre thoroughly her own.
Although speculative fiction doesn’t form part of my regular reading diet I knew that I had to read this book. Because of Michael’s recommendation; because it was written by someone from my homeland; because it won the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, for which I have a great reverence; and also because I have two little girls and it’s all about a world – turned upside down – in which girls rule.
The book is ambitious. To build an alternative world and to do so with such attention to detail as to make it completely believable, shows the skill of a hugely talented writer. It is also a courageous book. Some of the scenes – particularly the sexual violence portrayed in the second half of the book – are amongst the most vivid and disturbing and also important that I’ve read in a long time. I wonder how men will respond to reading a scene about being gang raped by women with ‘the power’ to work from within their anatomy.
I love the metaphor used to embody the power that the women have. A kind of electricity, connected to water, which mirrors the patterns we find in the natural world: lightening; the veins in a leaf; the roots of a tree; of rivers; the flow of blood in the human body – a constant branching outward. The way the power is described is beautiful as well as haunting and shows how the we and the world are deeply connected.
The robust physicality of Alderman’s writing is particularly striking and enjoyable. There were times when her descriptions were so vivid that I could feel things stirring in my own body.
The coming together of the ancient and Biblical with the thoroughly modern was also brilliant and made this feel like a classic – much like The Handmaid’s Tale.
The raw, colloquial, humour of Roxy, one of the narrators, was particular engaging and I loved the perspective of the male journalist too. In fact, all the points of view were expertly chosen, spanning age, gender, geography and time.
There were other details I found fascinating. How Alderman chose to make the power pass from the young to the old; how she uses modern technology to show how the power spreads in a global way; her invention of the drug, glitter, which, again, fits into her world, perfectly – and hiding the drugs in an hourglass, what genius!
It is a novel which deserves all the praise it received. That said, I did feel a little unsatisfied in the end. I felt like I’d been taken on a rollercoaster ride after which I stepped off, my legs wobbly, my insides churned up but without any clear sense of what I was meant to come away thinking. That power corrupts? That women are as dangerous as men? I don’t need a moral, of course and the fact that this book makes us think and ask questions is far more important than the fact that it fails to deliver any answers or conclusions, but still, I felt a little empty at the end. There is a human touch as Alderman brings Tunde and Roxy together but, beyond that, the book feels somewhat cold and disjointed. I came away wanting Alderman to connect the various elements and characters and situations a little more; to go deeper. But still, it’s a work of genius.