I’ve been stuck in a weird reading hiatus recently. Weird for me because I’m normally the type of nerd who considers it bragging rights if I make it to 50 books in year. It’s an identity point for better or worse.
However, for a lot reasons, (most of them uninteresting) I just…stopped for about a year and a half. I’m not completely sure what happened to all the time that I used to spend reading (Twitter definitely played more of a role than I’d like to admit to), but I also started and stopped any number of books. I just couldn’t get any of them to hold my interest. I had signed up for Cannonball Read in part to break myself out of this odd stasis, but then suddenly it’s July, and I still hadn’t gotten through anything.
This is all set up to say that when The Power hooked me, it really, really hooked me. If you haven’t read this book already, you may have heard about it when it came out last year, because it attracted quite a bit of attention. The concept is simple and striking. (No pun intended.) One day, women around the world spontaneously develop the ability to deliver an electric shock through their hands. What happens to society? How does the world change when women suddenly have greater physical power than men?
The book is written as a book within a book, a faux history of the change that follows several characters from around the world as they grapple with this new reality. Throughout the book section headings are counting down to something unnamed, and menacing (ten years before, three years before, one year before…) suggesting the initial change to women was only the prelude to a greater catastrophe. Also scattered through the book are illustrations of “artifacts” suggesting matriarchal cultures of the past, as well as evidence that this power once existed.
Make no mistake, this a dark, cynical book. Naomi Alderman has points to make about women in particular and society in general, and they aren’t positives ones. This could have so easily gone a different route and explored how power would look different (both for better and for worse) under a matriarchal society. But its quickly evident that she is interested in power dynamics and the idea that certain inequities in society don’t change, no matter who is on top. The women who climb to power do so by cutting traditionally masculine paths towards very ‘male’ positions; they are respectively, a politician, a mafia boss and a religious cult leader. On a morning show, there is a female anchor who, before the change, works with a condescending male anchor several years or senior. Once the change really sets in, he is replaced by a young man several years her junior who is basically hired to look pretty, while she starts to dress with gravitas and wear glasses. The fundamental idea is everything stays the same more or less, with the genders switched.
At a few different points, I kept thinking back to the book “Dear Madame President” by Jen Palmieri, which was written by Hilary Clinton’s former communications director in the wake of 2016, in which she talks about the need to re imagine what women in power would like. The thrust of her argument is essentially that collectively, we have failed to create an image of a woman in power, apart from a pale facsimile of how we imagine powerful men. We have therefore created women leaders who are forever at a disadvantage, as they try to plug themselves into an archetype of power that has been created by and for men.
There is another version of The Power, I would have liked to have read. That version would have explored the differences between how women would maintain and use power, were they suddenly to find themselves at the top of society, not just the ways in which they would be similar to men.
I’m not suggesting that Alderman had to write a book about a feminist utopia, or even about how women in power would necessarily do a better a job then men. There is still plenty of room for cynicism about a matriarchy. It just that there is a part of me that feels profoundly sad that as a society (myself included) we seem to have such a paucity of imagination when it comes to imagining women in power who do not operate according to the paradigms set by men, but who are never the less still flawed, still human.
This is not to put you off reading the Power. Alderman is masterful, and she has no need to cater to my particular desires for what else I’d like to see in fiction. It’s a compelling read, and it’s to her credit that it has left me wanting more.