I liked this a lot, even if the central message can be boiled down to “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that’s as provocative a statement as “water is wet.”
A frame tale where academics use historical documents to reconstruct a past much like our present as gender imbalance creates a crisis point and reveal their own biases in the interpretation is gonna get compared to Margaret Atwood for obvious reasons. To say this is not The Handmaid’s Tale is no slight to Alderman; even Atwood’s worst books are beautifully, elegantly, intricately written. Even the Rockies look like gravel if you compare them to Everest.
The big difference here is that Alderman imagines a world where women are the aggressors, the powerful. For all the talk of women being gentle and empathetic by nature, Alderman successfully argues that this is less innate than a function of being oppressed. Her politician, cult prophet, and gang leader all show flashes of what might be termed machismo; her male photojournalist is sensitive and at times delicate. Frankly, the divide between Alderman’s skill and Atwood’s is emphasized in passages meant to make the reader think of how these passages are usually rendered by male authors. Margot, the senator, sexualizing Tunde, the photojournalist, feels particularly heavy handed. I’m sure there are a dozen authors who’ve written about how amazing young asses look in tight clothing to men fresh off a victory of one kind or another, but not many good ones write it so straightforwardly. Its a bit of a neon sign – you wouldn’t notice this if this were written with a man describing a woman! But, a scene written to prove a point calls attention to itself in the same way as a scene written to titillate, and for the same reason – self indulgence. Ah, for Atwood’s subtlety here.
That’s pretty much my sole complaint though, Alderman has a damn good premise so it’s hard to begrudge her using it to highlight the excesses so common to our culture on the other side of things. I heartily recommend this one.