I will not let this book ruin my review streak. I finished it last week and have just been sitting on a final rating and review because I wasn’t sure what I thought of it when I finished it, and I’m still not really sure now, but I don’t think waiting any more will help. Maybe typing up my thoughts will help solidify some things.
I’m a little behind the times with this one. It was a big deal a couple of years ago, but it still feels timely, maybe more timely than ever.
The central conceit of The Power is that young girls (and women) suddenly develop the ability to discharge electricity from their fingertips. Alderman focuses her story on four main characters, three women coming into their power, and young man there to witness it: Allie (a foster kid from the southern United States who flees the murder of her foster father), Roxy (the daughter of a crime boss in London, who witnessed her mother’s murder), Margot (the mayor of an Illinois city, whose daughter wakens the power in her), and Tunde (a wealthy Nigerian kid who stumbles into being an international journalist, documenting the way the power is spreading). There is also a frame device set 5,000 years in the future, where we learn that the book we’re reading is a piece of historical fiction attempting to recreate the events “pre-cataclysm.” There are occasional interludes from a futuristic museum tour, which Alderman uses to flesh out the consequences of women developing this power.
I was warned going in that this was dark, and that it undercuts (on purpose) the feminist “girl-power” narrative many were expecting. I like this element very much. I just read a book a couple of weeks ago (about Wonder Woman!) that talked all about the early feminist movement that proposed that women should rule the world because they were inherently better than men, less violent, more kind and fair. This was false then, and it is false now. The problem with power dynamics between genders is not that men are bad and women are good, it’s that men have more power, and they use that power because they can. The problem is uneven distribution. The problem is inequality. Women seem better and more peaceful and kind, because we are socialized to submit, to make ourselves smaller, and when we don’t, we are socially punished for it. This is a function of power, and who has it, and who doesn’t. What Alderman’s book does is look at what would happen if a group with less power were suddenly given more than the people who formerly enjoyed a system built assuming the power was for them. She literalizes the metaphor.
And at first it is cathartic, as women fight back from oppressive circumstances, claiming positions and stepping out of the shadows, but very quickly those stakes turn, because the power is so unequal here, and literally dangerous, but the old systems of power are still there, too. They don’t just go away.
I am conflicted on how she executed this. On the one hand, the power differential is so great here, bad things are bound to happen. Ten years really doesn’t seem like an inaccurate time frame for things to fully go to shit if something like this were to happen. What I didn’t think was accurate was the way she had women who were born and lived for decades in the way things were before, very quickly having their underlying assumptions changed. There were so many moments where a woman’s internal monologue would assume that “men are this way” (aping some sexist convention that people say about women), which is something that would happen with women as the dominant gender. But not in five years. Not in eight years. You don’t get rid of those baked in cultural assumptions that quickly. The older women, and younger ones old enough to remember before, would not have had those thoughts. They would have taken advantage of the power, I think, but they would have thought differently about it.
I’m also conflicted about what she did with Allie (or rather, what she had our fake author/historian, Adam, do with Allie). I do not understand the point of SPOILERS the voice she hears in her head. At first I just thought it was a literalization of Allie’s own desires, but at the end we see the voice (having left Allie/Mother Eve) whisper in Margot’s head as well. It’s heavily implied the voice is God. But I don’t understand the point of that at all, so I’ve been trying to come up with other alternatives (assuming it was a device invented by our man historian, who is 5,000 years in the future fighting for his gender to be taken seriously, to be seen as an equal human being). The only thing I can come up with is that it was a manifestation of the women’s new power, but I’d have to re-read the book in that light in order to see if that checks out. still, it didn’t quite work out for me, and the voice plays a major role in the denouement, which was disappointing and unsatisfying END SPOILERS.
I did the audio, and Adjoa Andoh did a mostly great job with the narration. Some of her voices were slightly questionable, but when she’s on, she’s on. Other narrators are there for the museum pieces, and the frame story.
This is an interesting, thought provoking book, and I’m glad I read it. It took me a little bit to become emotionally attached to the characters, but it eventually worked itself out. I could tell because when she had bad, bad things happen to several of them, I became incredibly angry and upset for them, but it did take a minute. Definitely a book you’ll have to be patient with, for more than one reason. But worth it, I think.