The Power by Naomi Alderman

33641244Fiction – print. Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Originally published 2016. 387 pgs. Purchased.

Teenage girls across the globe now hold a tremendous amount of power – electric currents flowing through their bodies can be harnessed to hurt, maim, and even kill. As these young women learn how to harness and transfer their powers, they topple male-dominated power structures around the globe, including the Saudi Arabian government, the United States military, and the religious authority of the Pope.

The collapse of the patriarchy is confirmed by the letters between Naomi Alderman and Neil Adam Armon, a clever anagram of the author’s name, that bookend the story. Naomi and Neil discuss how realistic Neil’s fictional story is given men are weak, emotional, and, thus, incapable of holding power. (Sound familiar?) How the collapse of the patriarchy comes about, though, is told through the manuscript that Neil and Naomi are discussing.

This piece of historical fiction follows five characters:

  • Allie, who uses her power to escape from her sexually abusive foster father and becomes Mother Eve, the spiritual leader of a female-based religion
  • Margot, the mayor of an unnamed US city who develops training centers for teenage girls that feeds the military-industrial complex
  • Roxy, the daughter of a London gangster who wants revenge for the brutal murder of her mother
  • Jocelyn (or Jos), the eldest daughter of Margot, who experiences unexplained fluctuations with her power that leave her an outcast among women her age
  • Tunde, the only male character, who leaves his native Nigeria and becomes a journalist focused on documenting the rise of women around the world

The four characters are tied together largely through their connections to Tatiana Moskalev, the former first lady of Moldova. Once Tatiana receives the power, she kills her husband, takes over the role of president, and reconstitutes Moldova as a matriarchal country called Bessapara. A portion of Moldova breaks apart from Bessapara and serves as a regrouping base for the King of Saudi Arabia after he was deposed in a female-led uprising.

Given the threat along their borders, Bessapara desires the military support of the US military. Tatiana leans on Margot to use her new political clout to support her request or, at the very least, negotiate the deployment of the paramilitary organization Jocelyn is now a part of. Yet, the instability of Bessapara’s borders makes it an ideal spot for Roxy to run her father’s drug run, an action she undertakes with Tatiana’s blessing.

Allie, meanwhile, arrives in Bessapara because the voice in her head tells her that Mother Eve needs to be on hand to shepherded in a new era. And Tunde travels to the newly formed country following a tip about the increasingly marginalization and persecution of men within the borders of Bessapara.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a critique of the way science fiction writers, particularly those of dystopian novels like The Power, introduce matriarchal societies while maintaining the same power structures. Women hold the majority – if not, all – of political offices and leadership roles for businesses while men are presented as nurturers and caregivers.

This critique, which I found on tumblr and now cannot locate, argues that merely swapping the roles of men and women demonstrates a lack of imagination or ingenuity on the part of the writer. It shows that the writer is incapable of imagining a world where women hold power or where dynamics between different sexes manifest outside of the provider-nurturer dynamic found on Earth.

As I read Alderman’s novel, I kept circling back to this critique and wondering how accurate and fair it would be to apply to this novel. Women assume the roles the men previously held through similar mechanisms – Margot amplifies her political power by provide economic kickbacks to the military-industrial complex; Mother Eve relies on the cult of personality around her identity much like the Pope and other religious leaders; Roxy eliminates her competition through violence; and Tatiana manipulates people’s fears to solidify her power. The same power structures and the same world problems exist in this new society; the only difference is women are in charge.

Yet, I’m hesitant to apply this critique to Alderman’s novel because she isn’t dreaming up a new society. Instead, it is the story of how women capture power within a society where the roles of men versus women, powerful versus weak are already defined. The novel ends up being a critique of the patriarchy, the violence permeating our society, and the way power corrupts. It also thoroughly eviscerates the idea that women in power would automatically lead to a safer society.

Alderman’s novel was optioned for a TV series by Amazon back in February. Her writing style lends itself really well to a visual medium – vivid, tightly written dialogue, and well-paced drama. It will be interesting to see how well her critique of our society translates to the small screen. Done well, it could spark an interesting conversation for readers and non-readers of Alderman’s novel.

‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017. This prize was previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction between 1996 and 2012 and the Baileys Prize for Fiction between 2014 and 2017. 

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