Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman
Updated: Feb 26
"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 its hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there." - The Power
The Power aka "skein", is an electrical current that presents itself in pubescent girls, giving them the ability to mortally injure others. The current, radiating from within their bodies, gives women the power to protect themselves and destroy the patriarchy indefinitely as they are become physically stronger than men. For some girls, their skein is a source of destruction they do not wish to associate with, but gradually more and more women are seduced by the power of their skein. Across the globe, schools spring up teaching women how to use and control their power; but man or woman, power is power and it cannot be contained for long. Overnight, women across the world are elected to lead countries, they form the majority of national armies, band together to terrorise men and in Eastern Europe, female victims of human trafficking come together to establish an independent Republic of Bessapara. Against this backdrop, the stories of a wealthy Nigerian, a local American politician and her daughter, the daughter of a crime boss and a runaway foster child are entwined as they fight for survival amidst this new world order. Alderman deftly globe-trots, exploring the psyche and surroundings of these five individuals and how they are slowly, inevitably impacted by the female "power". Alderman weaves the characters storylines together and the relationships that form between them were a pleasure to read.
This Atwoodian dystopian thriller has been named "The Handmaid's Tale for the Gone Girl generation", with Atwood herself proclaiming the novel "electrifying". Unsurprisingly, my expectations before picking up this novel were SKYHIGH. Unfortunately, it was to be one of this books that ended seemingly in the middle of all the action. As I finished the final page, I was astonished that I had reached the finale as none of the five plot lines had been properly concluded. Rather, the novel ended with several global political factions at war; and the final battle for world domination ultimately eludes the reader. I felt I had been abandoned in the centre of the plot and left to ponder its various conceivable endings. How does this matriarchal global society last, having been founded in such a volatile geo-political setting? What about Jocelyn, Margot, Roxy and Tunde? How will they shape a life for themselves in this unstable, volatile world? Does Roxy regain a skein? Will Mother Eve be a victim of a coup or retain the mystique of her power as God's agent on earth until death? The Power certainly explores a dynamic and explosive concept but certain chapters felt directionless and the plot culminates prematurely.
Despite this, Alderman deftly dives into a dystopian future of paramount relevance to gender politics today. She explores gender as both a political and cultural concept and holds up a mirror to the sexism of modern society. In The Power, gender stereotypes are expertly flipped and force us to question if gender is anything more than a social construct. There is a secret smile that forms on the lips of all female readers of The Power as men are told to "act like a woman" and Neil is told it would be preferable for his work to be published under a female name. The darker side of this matriarchy emerges as one man, branded a "slut", is hung for sexual promiscuity and left to rot. The male laws, introduced by Tatiana Moskalev to her newly established Republic of Bessapara, also enforce a strict guardianship of male possessions to their closest female relative. In fact, men cannot go out into society alone unless escorted by a female. It is almost unimaginable that barely one hundred years ago, this was the legal reality for women in western societies and that in many parts of the world today women are still suffering under sexist legal systems.
The Power sees Alderman firmly take hold of femininity and detonate it. From the ashes, rise women who will do whatever they damn like. It is thrilling and it is refreshing; many female readers have said they felt empowered, both mentally and physically, after reading the novel. The final lines read "We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we've based our ideas on.". I believe this is such a significant point in the age of feminism as we attempt to move beyond our patriarchal history, and create a more genderless society in which we won't have "women's literature" and "woman Doctors" we will simply have authors and doctors. To envision an identity for ourselves that is not based on gender expectations is to be truly free, but first we must understand why these stereotypes exist. The epistolary style at the beginning and end of the novel also gave a nice touch, and the mention of Neil's novel belonging to "men's literature" served as a stark, final reminder of the global gender spheres that still exist today. Ironically, The Power is still considered "women's literature" today.
The most compelling character by far is Allie, known by her alias "Mother Eve". Mother Eve is reminiscent of a young Aunt from Atwood's Gilead and is likewise a morally complex figure. The running theme of this novel is self-explanatory; how power affects those who yield it, and Mother Eve is no less immune to its effects despite her associations with the mother of God. She is ultimately an opportunist, who raises her status from murderer on the run to leader of a global cult. She appears the voice of reason to an increasingly unstable Tatiana before usurping her position. Mother Eve plans to start a global war that will take society back to the Stone Age "And then the women will win". She seeks to rewrite a matriarchal global history at whatever cost. Society as we know it is destroyed, reduced to its primitive form against a backdrop of social, cultural and political unrest. It was interesting that the skein presents itself in a small percentage of men, and does not appear at all in some women, which forces us to question the concept of gender and womanhood. Ultimately, in The Power, nothing can be taken for granted and you will be left questioning every assumption about gender you have been taught.
- Ellie x