The Power by Naomi Alderman is part science fiction, part thriller and part feminism reborn as a morality tale in which all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts most of all no matter the gender of those that wield it. In this instance, teenage girls, and, eventually through them, all women, – the ‘power’ being electricity generated by a skein of knotted muscle and veins that grow under the skin and across the collar bones of girls and becomes the source through which girls – all girls – can learn to discharge electrical power from their hands and fingertips. A power that, handled correctly, can hurt a man, wound a man, kill a man. From that beginning women begin to take the societal power away from men changing society, religion and male / female relationships, forever.
This is told through the lives of three women and a man whose stories, like the skeins from which their power derives, are intertwined and seemingly damned by their newly acquired strength. This is particularly so in the case of Tunde, a young man and aspiring photo-journalist from Nigeria whose YouTube video of a girl taking down a man who was pestering her in a supermarket, and reducing him to a gibbering wreck bleeding from his eyes and mouth after she has touched him, sets the worlds’ media ablaze and ushers in what will become known as the Day of the Girls…
From here on Alderman’s impressive cast of characters include Roxy, the daughter of a London gangster; Allie (or Mother Eve as she becomes) who morphs from abused teenage orphan to the leader of a new, feminised take on Christianity; Margot, an American senator whose troubled daughter Jocelyn lacks the ability to use her power; and Tunde, who documents the world’s rapid shift, which, like an electrical Arab Spring, moves from patriarchy to matriarchy in a series of tumultuous set pieces, not least the collapse of male controlled countries like Saudi Arabia.
The Power is also savagely violent in places as the world shifts from male control, with its inherent, endemic violence, to female control, which unleashes its own, equally brutal, female take on revenge. Now, hundreds of years of being an abused and subservient sex, of being prostituted and beaten, is crystallised into an almost bestial discharge aimed straight at the heart of the male id, which, at its most basic, means his cock.
Here, in this world, men are raped by women who use their electrical powers to induce an erection in the unwilling male victim and then, when satiated, are shown killing the man in scenes that only mimic mans savage raping of women in wars through the centuries. Elsewhere men are tortured, limbs and organs are fried or severed, eyes burnt out. Men, in their turn, plant bombs and resort to terrorism and war in a futile effort to return the world to the old order. Alderman hammers this home in scenes that are as disturbing as they brutal:
“The woman on top cups his balls and dick in her palm. She says something. Laughs. The others laugh, too. She tickles him there with the tip of a finger, making a little crooning sound, as if she wants him to enjoy it. He can’t speak; his throat is bulging. They might have broken his windpipe already. She puts her head to one side, makes a sad face at him. She might as well have said in any language in the world. ‘What’s the matter? Can’t get it up?’ He tries to kick his heels to get away from her, but it’s too late for that”
In this world, as the initial shock of women’s new power and status sinks in, so men try to fight back, underground groups form, the Saudi King funds rebellion to take back his kingdom and the military tries to hardness and control women’s power to use it as a weapon. Yet the dynamic between men and women has flipped and no banging of fists by the old patriarchy can change that.
“He sees the dark eyes of the women watching him from the factory. He knows something then. A simple fact that should have been obvious from the first, had he not been pushing the knowledge from him. The women are not glad to see what he has done, or that he could do it. The fucking bitches are just starring at him: their mouths as closed as the earth, their eyes as blank as the sea. They walk down the stairs inside the factory in orderly file and march towards him as one. Darrell lets out a sound, a hunted cry, and he runs. And the women are after him.”
Yet, despite the violence, this is a serious and highly readable novel that moves at a cracking pace. Its ideas and the societies that it imagines, believable, real and, at times, frightening. The shift of emphasis from the male Jesus to the female Mother Mary and Eve, the first woman, not just apt, but in the circumstances described, absolutely right.
In some ways The Power reminded me of books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, of John Wyndham’s The Trouble with Lichen and Edmund Cooper’s almost forgotten novel of the early seventies, Who Needs Men or Gender Genocide as it was titled for its US release – a dark tale of a future societies extermination of men by women. That said, The Power is totally its own book, and a shockingly good one at that. One that not only provokes, but whose story and characters stay with you long after the last page has been read and the book finished, and I cannot recommended it highly enough. Fabulous!