A clever imagining of a world in which women (literally) have the power, this Baileys-shortlisted novel blends science fiction with dystopian global politics. Think The Hunger Games meets late Jeanette Winterson with a dash of Malory Blackman, this is a book your teenage daughter will love.
Set in an unspecified period of history defined as ‘pre-cataclysm’, and given a cod-verisimilitude with illustrations of cave paintings and archaeological artefacts, the book charts the events that unfold following a dramatic physical change in women’s bodies. Pubescent girls discover that they have an electrical current running from a ‘skein’ across their chest through to their fingers, with which they can inflict extreme pain, and even death, on others. They use this power against men.
Something’s happening. The blood is pounding in her ears. A prickling feeling is spreading along her back, over her shoulders, along her collarbone. It’s saying: you can do it. It’s saying: you’re strong.
Young girls teach their mothers this new skill, the movement spreads, women learn how to conserve, focus and direct their power – and a revolution ensues, word rapidly spreading online. Sex-traffickers, violent men and women-hating religious fundamentalists get their comeuppance. Abortion laws change, schools are segregated, governments are overthrown, and new leaders emerge. The narrative follows four characters with overlapping fortunes. Tunde, a young Nigerian man who witnesses one of the first attacks and films it on his phone becomes an accidental then considered chronicler of the changing world order with a YouTube channel and a book. The three female characters – all of whom have suffered from being on the wrong side of the patriarchy – are Allie, an American foster child who re-styles herself as spiritual leader Mother Eve; London girl Roxy, feisty daughter of a Reggie Kray-like gangster who plays the new criminal landscape as if she had been born to it; and politician Margot whose rise and rise leads to unexpected personal conflicts.
The novel forces the reader to reflect on the established conventions of our own society: how it feels to come of age as a member of the weaker sex; how might becomes right; the nature of sexual politics, gender, hierarchy, the function of the military and the balance of power. Inevitably what starts as heady freedom for women turns to violence and an obscene misuse of power. As the book reaches its horrific climax we are ask why the powerful exert such a malign and destructive force: the inevitable conclusion, the only conclusion – is ‘because they can.’
The prose rattles along in present-tense, page-turner vernacular, using plenty of dialogue, with emails, news reports, website extracts and ‘archival documents’ to advance the narrative. Alderman favours short, staccato sentences:
Roxy can feel the power crackling in the air around her. The women here are hyped up, excited, angry. She wonders if the men can feel it too. The policemen with their rifles are nervous. Something could go bad here very easily.
Hard to pigeon-hole precisely, this is a strange but clever book which poses interesting and important questions, and it feels topical – if a little didactic and heavy-handed. Alderman has been mentored by the great Margaret Atwood, whose quote on the book promises it will make you think twice, about everything. If you like YA feminist fantasy you’ll enjoy it; but The Handmaid’s Tale it ain’t.
The Power is published by Penguin, 352 pages.