by Eli Lambe
The Power is a profoundly affecting read. In it, Naomi Alderman envisions a switching of roles and of power dynamics, deftly parodying and reflecting back the ways in which we justify, enforce and understand gender roles.
It asks the question: “What if women were stronger than men; What if men had to be afraid of women?” and follows its core characters – Roxy, the daughter of a British crime boss; Tunde, a Nigerian journalist; Allie, an American foster kid who escapes an abusive household; and Margot, an American Mayor trying to balance her city in the wake of this sudden shift, and protect her daughters Jocelyn and Maddie – as the world progresses towards “Cataclysm.”
Of course, each character is and becomes so much more complicated than any of that, as the mysterious guiding voice in Allie’s mind concludes:
“It’s more complicated than that, sugar. However complicated you think it is, everything is always more complicated than that. There are no shortcuts. Not to understanding and not to knowledge. You can’t put anyone in a box. Listen, even a stone isn’t the same as any other stone, so I don’t get where you get off labelling humans with simple words and thinking you know everything you need. But most people can’t live that way, even some of the time. They say: only exceptional people can cross the borders. The truth is: anyone can cross, everyone has it in them. But only exceptional people can look it in the eye.”
As I began reading this book, as I continued through it, I was struck by a feeling of alienation – all these characters seemed to exist very squarely in cis-ness. There was an assumption that bothered me – that somehow the only effect of a change in ability to hurt would be that the people who had been hurt would start hurting. That somehow a group that had been trodden on would, if given the chance, do treading of their own.
a switching of roles and of power dynamics, deftly parodying and reflecting back the ways in which we justify, enforce and understand gender roles
The characters, and the society Alderman envisions, interacted with the world, with the change, along a strict binary: all girls had it, and all women could have it, but no men could. There’s no mention of anyone in-between, or outside it, or anyone crossing over, until a vague mention of “chromosomal abnormalities” halfway through the book. But the more I read, the more I was reminded throughout the text of the kind of writing being parodied and critiqued here, and the more complicated it became. The accounts of these characters’ lives in this book is sandwiched between correspondence between a “Naomi” character, a respected woman author in a world where women have the power, and a “Neil”, a historian and member of “The Men Writers Association”, putting together “A sort of ‘novelization’ of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative.”
This framing goes some way to explain the gap – the future Naomi and Neil inhabit is based on the world we live in now, but with the binary flipped. The dominant narrative is always structuring the academic, and that narrative rarely has room for nuance. The framing of it is complicating, I had to remind myself that these characters are not mediated through themselves, but through a historical lens, an agenda, which Neil points out – “this is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was”.
For myself, I just wish people like me weren’t one of the things missing, relegated to a simple “Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep’s clothing.” This comes from Margot, the middle aged, increasingly hawkish politician, and it pretty perfectly mimics the things I’ve heard older cis people say.
For myself, I just wish people like me weren’t one of the things missing
Almost too perfectly, but based on things Alderman has said, I’m opting to give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume it’s more parody. After all, even Neil, the in-text author, writes in his letters that “Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.” It draws attention to the way in which “controversial” identities like mine get ignored in order to make a book commercial, in order to make it appeal to “a general audience” – not only through Neil’s commentary either side, making the case for not giving his audience all the facts and figures, instead novelising the account, but also to the tendency in publishing to cut down on “complications” in their texts. If dystopia is rhetorical, the arguments this book makes and invites are not necessarily disrupted by this erasure, although it possibly fails to prompt people who don’t see the “empty space.”
Ultimately, I found The Power to be a complex book, one which at first seems easily categorisable, but which introduces a great deal of nuance and thoughtfulness as it develops. The characters are rich, and their relationship with gender is dealt with sensitively and with depth, despite the occasional cis-steps. It’s very “done” to say a book is thought-provoking, but I honestly think that is the goal here. If I’m right, it’s a huge success. There really is a lot to love about this book.
Featured image © Naomi Alderman