The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Power by Naomi Alderman is this year's Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction winner. It follows four main characters - Allie/Mother Eve, Roxy, Tunde and Margot - as they experience the awakening of an eel-like defense muscle, known as a skein, running along the collarbone of young girls worldwide. This electric skein allows these girls to suddenly create physical pain in those they touch, to awaken the power in older generations of women, and to control, and sometimes heal, those around them. For my fellow fans of The Handmaid's Tale, this is a perfect alternate dystopia to the one presented by Margaret Atwood, in that it imagines a world where women take over. We have never needed this book more.
It looks at this turn of power through four characters to capture how it impacts different layers of life - religion, crime, sex, journalism and domestic/foreign politics - and quickly shows that a change in power comes with some delightful victories but dangerous territories as well. Allie is an American runaway, sexually abused foster child who becomes a faith leader through her miraculous acts of control. Roxy, from the U.K., rises to the top of her male-dominated, mafia family and introduces a new drug that heightens the power of women to a global market. Tunde is a Nigerian journalist who travels the world filming these otherworldly acts of violence, protest and power as women break from the reigns of their abusers. Margot, Mayor of her U.S. town, goes on to become Governor and launches a military training program for women.
Most interestingly, we are reading their stories as if they have already happened in the past - the findings of a male historical scholar who has shared his manuscript with a woman. It indicates to the reader, less and less subtly, that we are reading from a time in the future where men have very little control or autonomy, the last line ending with the female reviewer asking the author to consider publishing the book under a female name to make it more credible, doubting that there was ever a time where woman did not rule, where men were the soldiers and providers.
So many of these cues, and the growing disabuse of power we see women take on in this narrative as they come into their own, serve as reminders as to how ludicrous gender dynamics are in our lived realities. We let so much slide, and, when we flip it on its head, it appears absolutely crazy. It becomes science fiction - which is exactly why this book is so astonishing. Like Atwood, her altered reality sheds light on how biased and off-kilter power dynamics in the world genuinely are. Whoever has the power abuses it, and it is only because history has favored men today that they have it.
But, as this books presents, that is not the only way.