Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Power - Naomi Alderman // Book Review

As always, I made it my goal to read as much of the shortlist as I could before the announcement. I am a little disappointed that I only read two of the books before the winner was announced, but - for once! - the winning novel was one of my picks.

Naomi Alderman's The Power was the first one off the list for me - although I already had an ebook copy of Stay With Me (review of that to come) thanks to netgalley, this was the book that excited me most on my initial impressions of the long listed titles, so I reserved it at the library straight away.

The main premise of The Power is that women develop a power, something like an electrical charge that they can express, which comes from a skein they have along their collarbones. Generally speaking, only women have skeins, and so only women can have the power. On that note, I want to get into my only real disappointment for the novel and talk about that first, so I can move on to focus about what I loved about the book.

I felt that, given the novel shows that not only women (by which, in this context, I mean cis women) can have and use a skein, there was a really interesting level of sex v gender, and gender v chromosomes/hormones, that could have been touched upon more, if not delved into very deeply. In particular, it wasn't entirely clear where the line was to make someone a 'woman' and therefore for them to possess a skein. Generally, the impression I got was that it required someone to be biologically 'female' at birth, but it would have been interesting to see how this affected trans people. I wanted to know whether trans men would have the power, have the possibility of having the power awoken in them like so many of the cis women whose power is brought out. Or, as so many older women might have hid their powers in the beginning, how many trans men were also having to hide theirs?

None of this makes the novel any less of a compelling story - it was just the one question that I wanted answers to and never really got, so it was a little disappointing when trans people weren't really involved in a story that so closely examines gender, sex and so on.

But on to the positives - this was ultimately a fascinating look into power, in all its forms. Women not only take on a kind of super power, with the ability their skein gives them, but the power balance shifts in all other ways. Women become physically superior, given that they can electrocute a man with relative ease; they take positions of authority and leadership over others, and they start to take control. At first, as you read this book, there's a kind of glee and excitement as you see women finally having all these different sorts of power, but as things go on, you slowly start to realise that power, no matter what kind or who has it, is ultimately dangerous and corrupting. It's a covert change, but the narrative slowly shifts until you realise that the only thing that has really changed in the novel's world is the gender holding power. Women are not, the novel shows, inherently good - they are not immune to the corrupting influence that power can have, the cruelty that can be wrought by power and their abilities. This isn't to say that the book suggests that the world and society we live in now is any better - but it shows that the problem is imbalance, the uneven distribution of power and control to one group, and not necessarily linked to a specific gender.

In particular the ending really pulls things together and it's definitely a book to make you think. As it neared the end of the main plot line, I started to feel disappointed with how it was turning out as it wasn't going the way I expected. However, the sort of 'after' ending section, with especially The Handmaid's Tale vibes, really pulled it back together again for me and made the entire premise much more interesting. It's the kind of book that would inspire you to reflect on your thoughts about gender, power and inequality, and I don't imagine it being the most comfortable read for some people too. But, as with Handmaid, it makes its point about the world and society, and has a very subtle and clever argument at its core.