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Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

April 08, 2018

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

I had very high expectations for this book. Possibly too high. To be fair, The Power was described by Margaret Atwood as ‘Electrifying!’ and it won the Bailey’s 2017 Women’s Prize for Fiction, so I feel like some level of expectation was justified.

As a story, it’s a cracker.  Teenage girls all over the world suddenly discover they have an inherent physical power which they can wield over men, causing them serious pain and suffering through electrical shocks.  

The Powerfollows the lives of four characters as they begin to understand the depth of this power and how it can be used.  Margot, an ambitious public official whose career is threatened by her teenage daughter’s newfound power; Tunde, a young male journalist who uses YouTube to report on how women and girls are using their power all over the world; Allie, a teenage girl who has spent her life bouncing from one abusive foster home to another and eventually finds herself in a convent; and Roxy, a street smart young woman from an underground crime family in London.

From personal relationships to geopolitical drama, there is so much action that draws you in from the very beginning, and the writing is excellent.  It’s one of those books that you read before bed thinking ‘I’ll just read ten pages’ and all of a sudden it’s 2am and you’re about to finish the book.

The Powerhas all the right ingredients to make it a complex and thought-provoking feminist work, but it never quite gets there.  While power is completely shifted away from men to women on many levels - physical, political, military, religious and social - those in power still ultimately abuse it, and sometimes in the cruellest of ways.  

The message seems to be that regardless of who is in power and their previous experience, male or female, ultimately we end up at war with ‘the other’, driven by fear and self-interest.  To me, this completely strips away the very real and important elements that make up structural power inequalities - gender, race, wealth and so many others - and avoids examining them at a deeper level. While these structural inequalities are all present in the book, they are portrayed as a permanent feature of society - the only thing that changes is who benefits and who is punished.  Instead of women being fearful of walking the streets at night, it’s boys and men who are told to be careful.

By simply flipping the current power structures on their head and ending up in a similar place, this book feels more like a comment on the human condition and the inevitability of abuse of power, instead of a nuanced examination of gender inequality (something Margaret Atwood does so well). Rather than an evolution, The Powerportrays a repeat of past mistakes, the only difference is that the victims have become the perpetrators.  

Perhaps the intention is to illustrate that women are just as fallible and corruptible as men, and to disrupt the notion that a world ruled by women would be utopia (which isn’t exactly a widespread belief!).  But what that fails to recognise is that, beyond our common humanity, women’s particular lived experience of oppression distinguishes us from men and very often changes the way in which we exercise power.  I appreciate the book is a dystopian vision, but I couldn’t ever really reconcile the past experiences of the women who rose to power and the way they then abused that power to inflict pain on others.  On a human level, it just didn’t make much sense - we’re not all driven exclusively by a sense of revenge.  

So while The Powercleverly illustrates the numerous power imbalances that women currently experience, at the same time it treats those power imbalances as inevitable, which was fairly confusing and frustrating when looking at the book through a feminist lens. Even though I really enjoyed reading the story, I wasn’t left with a strong sense of its overall purpose.

Have you read The Power? Did I totally miss the point? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!  


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