Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

A review of  The Power  by Naomi Alderman

A review of The Power by Naomi Alderman

“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”

The buzz surrounding The Power by Naomi Alderman was immense; I saw headlines and reviews touting that it was the 21st Century Handmaid’s Tale, it had won literary awards, it was a piece of feminist literature. Of course I wanted to read it.

What would you do, if given the power? Would you kill because you could? Would you rape because you had the upper hand? Would I? I have been so angry. I have watched rape scenes play out on screens and in books, I have gritted my teeth. I have been afraid to walk alone in my own neighborhood, I have been trapped in elevators and corners of dark rooms where I couldn’t be sure if I would make it out safely. What if I had electricity coursing through my veins instead of my car keys stuck through each knuckle? Would I use it? Would I lash out?

Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Alderman seems to believe so. The Power imagines what the world would be like if men, not women, had to live in constant fear for their physical safety. This book doesn't just flip gender roles. It delves into complicated discussions around systemic oppression, power, rape culture, gender, and religion. It sometimes feels difficult to navigate this book; it is both an unflinching dystopian yet also a mirror of our world today. It forces you to ask hard questions about your beliefs. Alderman considers these issues through the eyes of four very different people.

There's Roxy, the rough and tumble daughter of a British mobster. There's Allie, a mixed-race girl who runs away after years of abuse and finds herself at a convent, revered as some kind of messiah. There's Margot, an American politician and one of the few older women with the power. And then Tunde, a millennial Nigerian man and aspiring journalist who captures footage of the power in action.

This could have been so much more revolutionary if Alderman would have given the women “the power” and then shown how they were compassionate, just, caring and inclusive. If she could have shown a world that was not so blinded by team mentality, a world where it was possible to find balance in power, a world ruled by women... Perhaps, though, it is more effective that it served as a mirror. If there are people reading this that don’t see the absurdities in our current political and cultural climate, this could help reflect that back to them.

GENDER ROLES

This book had so much unfulfilled potential. I love the premise, because it invites so many nuanced questions and discussions within the realm of feminism and religion. What are the implications of empowering women just so they act more like men? Unfortunately, the book itself doesn’t feel nuanced enough within itself. Some parts seemed too simplistic.

This book opens with a framing device, the frame being this work as a book or research project being sent from a person named Neil to Alderman. If this is presumably a piece of research, I wish it would have been treated as such. I don't believe that Saudi women would embrace rebellion so readily and to the extent laid out here. The notion that Muslim women are just waiting to throw off their clothes, riot in the street, and have casual sex feels like a blinkered "Western" perspective. Sure, maybe this would evolve over time if Saudi women had power, but I find it very hard to believe that anyone would cast off centuries of cultural practices in a matter of days.

It has been touted as a feminist novel, but after reading it myself I don’t know that it is. On one hand, it exposes the failures of men throughout history by turning the tables, but on the other - with women in charge, Alderman has written that there are just as many wars, lies, oppression, murder and rape as there's been with men in power. I see my bias, I know it is there, but I don’t know that I believe this would be the case if women were to come into power in this way. Would the oppressed become the oppressor? I would like to believe that we would use our power more wisely and more compassionately.

There are countries in this new world order that begin to change their rules to fit the new power dynamic, one of which bans men from voting with the notion that they cannot be trusted to rule or govern because of their years of violence and degradation. And yet women now have the power and are just as violent and degrading? Tunde observes, “Transfers of power, of course, are rarely smooth”. That narrative seems oversimplified and just doesn’t fit for me.

It bothered me from the beginning and then throughout the book that Alderman never fully addressed non-binary or gender non-conforming individuals. The whole story is focused on hetero-normative, cisgender perspectives. She does briefly touch on chromosomal irregularities but in no meaningful way. It gets mentioned how some males are born with the “skein” and the power and how some women are not. They are outcast and seen as the deviant other. They are experimented on, tortured at worst and hated at best.

RAPE CULTURE

If rape is triggering for you, please know that it is mentioned more than once in this book.

There are many scenarios throughout the book that nod to rape culture. I particularly liked the part where one woman claims that some males "secretly like it", a play on the notion of "asking for it".

Suddenly “sex sells” translates to cute boys batting their eyelashes while enforcing a narrative to be strong girls above all else. But presumably this power is new to women...so how is it that subliminal marketing messaging works by playing on brand new cultural narratives? It is my understanding that this should only work to reinforce long standing norms. Women have never been in a place where they are the more powerful, where they are raised from birth to believe that their strength is one of the most important parts about them, and in that same way, boys have never been raised to be valued only for what they look like. Again, I get it, it’s serving a mirror. But I want the mirror shattered into a thousand glistening pieces.

RELIGION

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

Alderman manages to pack in a lot about religion. There are Biblical overtones and allusion to the Bible. Margaret Atwood is Alderman’s mentor and it is reflected in her work especially in how they weave through religious narrative. Every major religion from Christianity to Wicca is touched on, and even the Westboro Baptist Church gets a mention. Allie's POV became deeply entrenched in religion, more so than was interesting. Allie adopts the new name of Eve for herself, becoming a kind of messiah and goddess.

“Eve says, ‘God is neither woman nor man but both these things. But now She has come to show us a new side to Her face, one we have ignored...They have said to you that man rules over woman as Jesus rules over the Church. But I say unto you that woman rules over man as Mary guided her infant son, with kindness and with love.’”

Matriarchal tribes do still exist. There are Creation stories where a female(s) has been central to the story, and which many anthropologists point to as evidence for many of those cultures being a matriarchy. This is another example where Alderman seems to oversimplify. She could have pulled from actual anthropological accounts of these cultures that are ruled by women. If, on the one hand, you have this character Allie/Eve touting that God is love, kindness, compassion but then on the other you have her following forming vigilante mob mentality you would need to give more insight as to why those two things are happening simultaneously in order for it to hit its mark.

“Everything is more complicated than that, sugar. However complicated you think it is, everything is always more complicated than that. There are no shortcuts. Not to understanding and not to knowledge. You can’t put anyone into a box.”

I wonder the depth of empathy and compassion that this world could be capable of if women were in charge more times than men. I wonder if kindness would be our default instead of anger and resentment. Perhaps the aim of the book was solely to shine a light on the double standards that exist between men and women, to show the true inequality in it. I did find myself questioning the ultimate aim. It was difficult to accept the conclusion that the world would look exactly the same, as brutal, as violent, as unjust, if it were destroyed and rebuilt with women in charge.