Thursday, September 5, 2019

Book 197: The Power

"Women and men who were willing to sell him food or fuel for his little camping stove became fewer and farther between. He started to develop a sense for those who might be friendly. Older men, sitting outside a house playing cards—they'd have something for him, might even find him a bed for the night. Young men tended to be too frightened. There was no point talking to women at all; even meeting their eyes felt too dangerous."

Dates read: December 19-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

About a year and a half ago, I was out walking the dog on a Friday around 8 P.M. I noticed someone get dropped off by a car a couple blocks down, who then started walking towards me. I registered this as odd, since most people get dropped off in front of their house or reasonably close to it. I kept walking the dog down the road, and looked back to notice the person (almost certainly a man, by build) continuing to walk towards me. Now I was really unsettled. I pulled my headphones out and began to hurry the dog up. I rounded a corner, and about halfway down the block he started to resist and pull back, and since it was a well-lit section of sidewalk I let him sniff. I looked back the way I'd come and the guy was standing there on the corner, standing partially obscured by a light pole. I practically dragged the dog the rest of the way down the block until I got to a busy road. The guy never re-appeared, but I was afraid.

As a small woman, I can't remember the last time I was out in public without at least some baseline level of apprehension for my safety. I'm not walking around constantly terrified by any means, but I am just always aware that there's the possibility that I could be anything from verbally harassed to followed to grabbed. Most of my female friends feel the same way. It's just what it means to be a woman in the world. Naomi Alderman's The Power, though, imagines a different world entirely. It begins in the world as it exists, but there's a sudden change: women have developed an organ that generates electricity inside them, electricity they can shoot out through their hands. In a matter of weeks, the world goes from one in which men are the most powerful, physically and otherwise, to one where that balance isn't the same anymore. The Power changes everything.

Alderman explores this new world through four people: Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss, whose Power is exceptionally strong; Allie, an abused teenage foster child who turns the voice she hears in her head into a new religious movement; Margot, an ambitious politician; and Tunde, the only man, a Nigerian journalist chronicling the changes in the world since the Power emerged. There's chaos, initially. No one knows what to do, what it all means. But things change quickly, all the way from men needing to learn how to protect themselves against violent women, to women dominating the military, to women toppling oppressive regimes. Eventually the storylines all converge in a fictional Eastern bloc country, now ruled by a woman as a dictator, that's the center of a proxy war between the powers-that-be in the old world against those of the new.

This is a fascinating idea to consider, how the world would change if something like what Alderman describes happens. And I think the failure of the book (as you can see from my rating, I didn't think it was especially good) comes from trying to capture too much. Roxy and Allie's perspectives dominate the book, and while I understand why Alderman included Tunde, to give an idea of what it would be like to come of age as a man in the world as we know it and live through the way it changes, I think Margot's storyline was weak and could have been cut to develop Tunde better. There's some good characterization going on with Roxy and Allie (particularly the former), but it's inconsistent, and it seems almost like Alderman was so excited to really dig into what she thought might happen in her new world that she didn't really think about the people who would be living in it beyond broad strokes.

That being said, it's an effective exploration of the way that power corrupts. At first, many women lash out at men in revenge for the ways they themselves have been hurt, which is an understandable reaction. The reader expects it to settle down after a while, after some wrongs have been righted, but it doesn't. Women begin to objectify the men around them, use their superior position to commit emotional and physical violence against them. While it's easy, living in the world we do live in, to imagine that women would wield large-scale power more effectively and humanely than men have and do, Alderman punches through that fantasy by remembering that women are, after all, human, and human beings do not have a great track record when it comes to the way we mistreat each other when given the opportunity to do so. I do think that as a novel, there are significant weaknesses, but as a piece to engage with intellectually, there's a lot to think and talk about here.

One year ago, I was reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Two years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bridge of San Luis Rey


  1. Why 6/10? Given your review, I would have thought higher.

    1. It felt more like a thought exercise than a fully-rendered story, to me. Interesting ideas, but the execution was hit-or-miss, and I prefer books with stronger characters

  2. I liked this book a lot in spite of its shortcomings and I think your review was fair and balanced. When I read it for one of my book clubs, we had a very lively discussion about the idea, more than the writing. I have to agree that for me the plot was somewhat muddy in places and I had a little trouble keeping some of the characters straight, but apparently that didn't matter too much.

    1. I think it would make a good book club selection for that reason...lots of interesting thematic stuff to have discussions about! I wish it had been better executed on a story level.