First published in The Star on 9th February, 2017
By Naomi Alderman
(Viking, 339 pages)
IF you identify as feminist, you are likely tired of explaining that the women’s movement is about gender equality and not the domination of men by women. If you are a feminist you are probably sick of hearing it said that you and your ilk hate men, burn bras, and are all lesbians (closet or otherwise). If you actively oppose the oppression of women in whatever form, you will have rolled your eyes countless times in response to those who declare that feminism is a sexist movement and that they prefer being called humanists or equalists.
Feminism is not about women being better than men, but it is about and attempts to address personal, political, social and economic power disparities between the sexes. So, what if women had the power? Would it automatically result in gender equality?
The Power is Naomi Aldermanan’s brutally honest answer to this question. Presented as historical fiction written 5,000 years in the future, it speculates on the first days of the female revolution. The author is one Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman) whose novel is based on his interpretation of historical documents and archaeological data. The ascendency of women begins as a physical manifestation of strength – teenage girls are suddenly able to channel electricity through their hands and can awaken the ability in older women. This ‘power’ leads to the women’s eventual dominance in all areas of life and the state of the world that Neil Adam Armon lives in. The author sends his manuscript to his mentor, a successful female author who responds to Neil’s self-deprecation with kindness, indulgence and condescension. His theory of a brutal and controlling patriarchy is shot down: surely men would have been “loving and naturally nurturing”; surely women, the ones with the responsibility of caring for and protecting babies, would be the “aggressive and violent” ones.
The story is told from four perspectives: there’s Margot, an ambitious and unscrupulous American politician; Roxy, the teenage daughter of a London gang lord; and Allie, an abused bi-racial American orphan. Tunde, a Nigerian journalist offers the fourth and only wholly outsider-perspective. He is powerless, male and coloured, and it’s appalling that the disbelief and horror I felt on reading about the way he and other male characters are treated was much greater than my reaction to the same sort of injustices experienced by women every single day. Hmm, is the oppression of women so much the norm that it fails to horrify me as much as it should?
I like the way The Power made me think of this and other questions through the way it presents the increased dominance of women in tandem with the inevitable escalation of violence, aggression and abuse. It seems that power, no matter who has it, is a destructive, corrupting force. By inverting traditional gender roles, and also gendered behaviour (no matter how stereotyped), Alderman forces the reader to confront them and acknowledge how ridiculous and unfair they are. As I pointed out above, what’s most shocking is the realisation that you may have taken some of these roles and actions for granted, as acceptable or inescapable.
To me, the book’s success lies in how it bravely declares the possibility that women with power would behave no better than how men do; that a matriarchy would mean the oppression of men in much the same way as patriarchy oppresses women; that gender equality is never going to happen because there is too much at stake. Read it for the way these issues are raised and explored, and how the story encourages you to examine your views about these things, but be warned that Alderman’s writing, while unflinching in its graphic and gruesome details, is simply as serviceably, mundanely descriptive as your average B-grade thriller, or action movie novelization.
The fast-paced and action-packed narrative seems to have been written with film rights in mind and it seems The Power will indeed be turned into a telly series. I suppose this is one way to keep the conversation going, although I can imagine how dramatization of the book’s controversial premise will encourage equality naysayers. Then again, they won’t be saying anything they don’t already.