By Freya Neason
‘There are strange movements rising now, not only across the world but right here in the US of A. You can see it on the internet. Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to leap on the unsuspecting, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Westboro Baptist Church has seen a sudden influx of crazy new members who think the day of judgement is coming.’ (p.70)
As I continue to work my way through the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction longlist, I turn to my next book: The Power by Naomi Alderman. This is a science fiction novel that Justine Jordan describes in The Guardian as questioning the ‘conventional exercise of power between the sexes.’ Alderman depicts a dystopian world in which women have discovered their ‘power’ (in this case, the power of electrocution), thus threatening the patriarchal order of society.
The feminist undertone to this novel clearly challenges its readers to re-evaluate some of the oddities within modern day society’s treatment of gender. Once women have discovered their power, it soon becomes clear that they are using it indiscriminately: ‘parents are telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far’ (p.21). This all-too-familiar warning is considered by Alderman in a completely alien context, and the novel consequently highlights how ridiculous the need for such advice really is. Throughout The Power there are continual and occasionally graphic references to the rape culture that pervades present day society, making it in parts a difficult and disturbing read.
Alderman’s inversion of gender stereotypes is successful in many respects; however, there is something fundamentally lacking in her vision of a matriarchal world. It is, in some respects, over-simplified and some characters are even megalomaniacal. All of a sudden, women throughout the world discover their power in unison and without question decide to take over society, violently subjugating men in their path. Although it is clear that The Power is not presented as a utopian ideal, rather this novel is firmly dystopian, Alderman’s execution of such an important topic has missed the mark.
Despite its wide-ranging chapters, focusing on successive characters, the novel lacks the nuance of culture, religion and race that make up women’s experiences around the world. Alderman assumes that women of all distinctions are weak and meagre prior to discovering their power. Even the supposedly rebellious gang member Roxy appears to be set free from patriarchal oppression when she discovers her ability to electrocute others. By creating a world which emphasises women’s accession to ‘power,’ Alderman unavoidably insinuates that all women are currently devoid of power. Although this may be true for some women, it isn’t representative and at points her narrative felt quite patronising.
I cannot say that I have been converted to the sci-fi genre; however, this book wasn’t completely unenjoyable. With a fast-paced plot and countdown time markers at the beginning of each section, Alderman succeeds in building up significant tension and the novel is quite gripping as it develops. In order to enjoy The Power, you must prevent yourself from being too angered by anticipations of a prescriptive solution to current female repression. It is a novel about power, inequality and dominance, and Alderman convincingly highlights the absurdity of the belief that one gender is inherently superior to the other. Although this was not my favourite of the shortlisted novels that I have read so far, it is definitely one that should not be overlooked.
Image: Penguin Books and Faye Chua