There’s a good chance you already know the premise of this novel by Naomi Alderman. It has, after all, garnered lots of attention and was the winner of the 2017 Women’s Prize. The moment was clearly right for a book in which women gain physical power over men (in this case, through the ability to generate electric shocks). The power starts with girls, but the girls are able to pass it along to (at least some) women. And this new physical power leads to a complete reversal of societal power structures, with women now objectifying men and men measuring their words and actions with an eye to how women will respond.
I enjoyed reading this book, seeing how the world changed, both in the short term and the extreme long term, in light of this reversal of power. But I also thought it was a little too tidy and the reversal a little too complete. And, as someone who does not believe that there are fundamental differences between men and women, I’m conflicted about that feeling. Why wouldn’t women behave exactly as men do, given the same degree of physical power over men? Are we not as capable to objectification and cruelty? Of course we are. But I also believe that generations of conditioning have altered our thinking, which means that a complete and total reversal would not be so complete so quickly. (The framing device, set thousands of years in the future, is more plausible than the story set in the immediate future.)
I’m not even saying that women would handle power better than men. It’s just that, in the short term, I think it would be different. When I set this narrative against Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, I can see that Hall was better able to lean into both the ways women can be as corrupted by power as men are without exerting their power in exactly the same ways.
The Power is at its best when it pushes against its own tidy narrative. For instance, the character who becomes the center of power, Mother Eve, develops a Goddess mythology that is built on Christianity but gradually draws on other faiths as well. It’s not always clear how much Eve (previously Allie) believes her own story. Her theology is a fascinating mix of sincerity and scheming, and much of what she says and does casts an interesting light on how religious leaders manipulate their followers. And a revelation toward the end adds some additional shading to the story that I appreciated.
Alderman also gestures toward the idea that sex is not a strict binary, as some girls do not develop the power and some boys do. However, none of these characters are depicted as trans or intersex or gender-fluid. Gender presentation in the book is entirely binary, which makes me wonder why she bothered having characters whose powers are on a less binary spectrum. There’s also little exploration of why some adult women are able to pick up the power while others aren’t. In fact, by the end of the book, 10 years after the power first appears, the notion that not all adult women can acquire the power seems to have been abandoned.
This review sounds more negative than I really feel about the book. I enjoyed reading it! It was fun to see how the story developed and what happened to the various characters as the power took hold. The story is structured around the idea that a big cataclysm is coming, and that created a sense of suspense that kept me reading. And, to be honest, there was something cathartic about reading a book where women are in charge. Ultimately, though, I think this is less a book about sex and gender and more a book about the corrupting force power itself.