The Power by Naomi Alderman

Title: The Power

Author: Naomi Alderman

Publisher: Penguin-Viking

Published: Out Now

RRP: £12.99 Hardback

Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonising pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary, visceral novel are transformed and we look at the world in an entirely new light

What if the power were in women’s hands?

So James Brown once sung It’s A Man’s World.  And if you asked some men why that would be the case someone somewhere will say it’s because men are just physically stronger.  Men have forced themselves to the top of the tree and that’s why women should know their place; at the same time we would then be told that women are the fairer sex and just don’t have what it takes to lead.  This amazing novel challenges these assumptions with a very simple change to our world that creates a whole new plausible reality

The conceit Alderman has created is the idea of the power.  A latent muscle within women mutates for reasons not initially clear which activates a potentially long-suppressed ability to generate electricity – imagine the power and intensity of an electric eel that can be fired from your fingertips.  Initially starting with teenage girls but we soon see that this power can move to adults too.  The story then imagines how our wonderful patriarchal world will react.

To do this we look through largely the eyes of four characters.  Roxy is the child of an English gangster who we first meet as a child witnessing the murder of our her mother and possibly one of the first uses of the power to defend herself which may mean her use to the family business will be bigger than initially expected. Tunde is when we first meet him a ladies’ man but gets exposed to the power very quickly and takes on the role of a travelling reporter seeing how the world changes.  And over the Atlantic we have Margot an ambitious politician who starts to suspect her daughter may be exhibiting symptoms and at the other end of the spectrum we have Allie an abused foster child who has a far greater vision of what the power will mean for the world and its religions.

Over the next ten years the story then builds up the ramifications of these changes.  This is one of the most fascinating ideas in the book – how does this one change affect society?  In some cases the power can be liberating.  Bullying and abuse towards women quickly stops.  Countries that have restricted women’s right to drive or own property suddenly see revolution. In other cases we see frightened societies (strangely in the US if you could possibly believe it) who try to suddenly monitor and control every young woman in the country. There are darker undertones too – those with the power can now be seen as a new weapon; it can be abused without much thought and we see some use it for murder and sexual violence as well as to secure powerbases.  It should always be remembered though that men have been doing similar for a few millennia or so.  Ultimately showing that our choice to be good or evil is not simply a matter of gender.

Each character’s journey into the world exposes how the corners of the world may react and as they cross paths directly or indirectly we see that power can make allies or enemies of men.  The book builds up from small stories to a truly international stage as tensions mount between the old world and the new. The new world it should be stressed may not be the nirvana some who hope for and the final part of the novel really underlines that the new boss may be the same as the old.

This has so far been the read of the year for me as it does what good SF should do - use such ideas to question and challenge our views of this world.  Its smart, well thought out and I think accurately reflects how our world thinks.  I’m really intrigued to know what Naomi Alderman has in store for future tales

Matthew CavanaghComment