This novel was reviewed quite a bit on the site last year, but the mixed reviews (“interesting concept but …”) made me decide against reading it. I was looking at potential book clubs to join and one of the ones I was considering listed this novel as the next read. I didn’t make it to the book club but I read the novel, thinking I might go.
In many ways, I enjoyed this novel much more than I thought I would (I’m sure lowered expectations helped), but also agree with the critiques. The novel is introduced as a potential historical fiction novel, explaining the ancient history of society. Neil has sent it to his friend Naomi for a first read. Since the novel has headings like “10 years to Go,” it is clear that this novel is counting down to some type of huge event. Ten years prior very much reads as the modern world, except some teen girls are starting to exhibit the ability to create electric shocks. Scientists are eventually able to trace this power to an actual body part located under the clavicle. While it starts with teen girls, they can turn it on in older women, but initially the teen girls mostly use it to defend themselves or increase their sexual partners pleasure.
However, Alderman soon shows how this new power dynamic leads to a change in society. From hiding the ability, women start using their powers openly, and it’s only takes a few years to see a complete shift in gender dynamics. Of course, there are also large groups of conservatives who are resisting any changes and trying to put women back in their place.
Intermixed with the various chapters are pictures of artifacts discovered by archaeologists, ranging between a few hundred and thousand years in age. This helps remind the reader that this is framed as a historical novel, explaining the origins of society, meaning that whatever changes happen are going to be long reaching and long lasting. The novel focuses on four different perspectives to tell the story, a middle aged woman politician, and two teen girls who develop an early partnership – one of them is from a crime family, while the other is posed to become a religious figure. Finally, one lone man rounds out the perspectives, and he uses this change in society to become a journalist, documenting what is happening. As the novel progresses, he slowly shifts from supportive excitement to cautious hesitation.
Even with women getting these electricity powers, I didn’t quite buy the societal change would be as fast globally as it was, and I think there would have been different dynamics in place rather than a copy of how society currently works but in reverse. On the other hand, a lot of the big picture movements and ideas make sense to me, and unfortunately have too much historical precedence. After sex slaves in East Europe free themselves, they take over the country and are incredibly violent towards men. Given events like the massacres in Cambodia and the Cultural Revolution in China, I absolutely can see how easily the oppressed can go from having a righteous grievance to abusing power. Similarly, reactionaries will do anything to hold on to their old power structures and prevent change.
While I didn’t agree with all the narrative choices, I do think it is a fascinating read and a great book club selection, so I actually would recommend this one, even with some of the weaknesses/issues.