Crisis of Power: A Review of Naomi Alderman’s Dystopian Novel
Early in Naomi Alderman’s brilliant novel The Power, an epigraph from the futuristic “Book of Eve” states:
It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold.
Moving forward from this quotation, Alderman shows the genesis of the time of women, precipitated by the emergence of a strange new power awoken in young women. Through a skein of tissue by the collarbone, young women can generate electrical power and send it out through their fingertips. Eventually, they help awaken this power in much older women as well, and the chaos that ensues is much like what is portended above: thousands of women send messages to men that they, the women, now are in charge. The new world cannot hold the evolution of such power.
The novel focuses on four main characters: Roxy, the illegitimate teen daughter of a British mobster; Tunde, a Nigerian man and promising journalist; Margot, a mayor of a large U.S. city; and, Allie, an older teen who grew up in U.S. foster homes. For ten years, the novel traces the evolution of women’s power. Once the transition to full female empowerment is complete, the novel finishes in a crescendo of chapters where the plotlines converge and diverge.
As I listened to Adjoa Andoh’s brilliant narration on Audible, I found myself smiling at events like one that Tunde experiences in Saudi Arabia. After gaining a group of women’s trust, he watches them sabotage expensive cars. Noor, a newly empowered woman, narrates: “‘They do not let us drive a car here,’ she says, ‘but watch what we can do.” Tunde witnesses women electrocute cars until they melt, “dripping with oil and hot steal.”
Another section reveals that women in Moldova, once trafficked in the sex trade, now take power back and punish those who enslaved them. These moments are more than role-reversal, however. They made me think about what in our world disempowers women and makes them the victims of exploitation. Just open any news site and you will find a crisis of power, one that shows the physical, emotional, and spiritual power men flaunt at women. So, yes, the revenge themes in Alderman’s novel are appealing, but the author has much more in mind for the reader.
As women overthrow governments and terrorize men, the revenge fantasy is replaced with a growing dread: will woman merely replicate the pain men afflicted when they held power? For example, several women sexually assault one of Roxy’s brothers. When Roxy confronts them, they tell her: “He was asking for it. He begged us for it…knew just what he was looking for, couldn’t get enough of it, wanted us to hurt him.”
As violence against men becomes more intense in the novel, Alderman states:
There is a noise that is different to grief. Sadness wails and cries out and lets loose a sound to the heavens like a baby calling for its mother. That kind of noisy grief is hopeful. It believes that things can be put right, or that help can come. There is a different kind of sound to that. Babies left alone too long do not even cry. They become very still and quiet. They know no one is coming.
Alderman’s inclusion of a male major character now makes sense: he is a canvas on which the pain of men is painted. He stands in for the countless women and children in today’s reality that fall victim to men who maim, rape, and kill. At one point in the novel, two main characters try to make sense of why those they loved betrayed them. The answer is one that feels true in our own reality: “Because they could…That is the only answer there ever is.”
The Power is more than a narrative of how women gained and exploited their power. It is also a metafictional frame story. The outer frame focuses on the correspondence between the writer of a book called The Power and his editor. There is also a historical frame, one where a futuristic museum is visited, in which relics of the time before are described: three images of the Holy mother, rudimentary weapons used to conduct the electrical power, devices used to help control the power, and others. This hints of a time many years in the future when scholars try to make sense of the time leading up to and the time after women control the world.
A parallel with Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale seems obvious here – Atwood’s “Historical Notes” at the end of the book work in much the same way. However, The Power is not a book to dismiss as a version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is much more. Instead of looking at a future where women’s agency is further diminished, Alderman posits a much different future, one where women with power must decide on how to wield it.
Interestingly, the connection to Atwood moves beyond an interplay between the two novels. In her “Acknowledgments,” Alderman thanks both Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, two feminist speculative fiction writers that helped open a world where a woman could publish a book like The Power. The relationship between Atwood and Alderman was actually rather formal; they were connected via the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative Programme. For a year, Atwood served as a mentor for Alderman.
Discussing her role as mentor, Atwood says in a Telegraph interview:
The thing about the written word is that the book is the intermediary between the writer and the reader. It’s a three-way relationship, not a two-way relationship. You’re talking about this third thing, through the third thing. The person really has to have produced something to work on before we can work on it. So you’re a combination editor-cum-cheerleader – probably something like that.
Atwood was no mere cheerleader, I suspect. Alderman’s book plays both with and against The Handmaid’s Tale in very complex and satisfying ways. Both books stay with the reader in wholly different ways.
Although The Power, only recently released in the United States, is being contextualized within the constant barrage of news items related to sexual harassment and sexual assault, I refuse to do that here. Alderman’s novel is not a result of any one man’s abuse of power. Rather, it is a response to hundreds of years of patriarchal power. We may feel a political crisis emerging when it comes to the mistreatment of women and children, but it is the work of writers like Atwood, Le Guin, and now Alderman that provide important counter stories.
Alderman’s play on language challenges readers to think about how power is constructed and maintained in their society. When Alderman says, “Power has her ways. She acts on people, and people act on her,” readers may find the use of the feminine pronoun unsettling, but once done with this important book, readers, like me, might actually wish for a reality where power did not cause a crisis but, instead, was used to build a more equal world for all.