The Power is a contender for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the fourth book from British author Naomi Alderman. Book club chose it for our May read and spent a lively Sunday brunch debating this corker of a novel.
What’s it all about?
There’s been a lot of attention on this book since it secured a place on the Baileys Prize shortlist so you’re probably familiar with the synopsis already. If not, here’s the blurb from the publisher:
What if the power to hurt were in women’s hands?
Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed.
What’s good about it?
Where to start?
This is the book of our times. It gets under the skin of so many issues facing contemporary society and gender relations that you begin to wonder if you’re reading a newspaper rather than a work of fiction.
Comparisons have been drawn with Margaret Atwood and, in particular, The Handmaid’s Tale and they are fully justified. Atwood and Alderman are friends – in fact Atwood is a mentor to Alderman – and the same concerns about the female predicament are evident in their work. Alderman is certainly Atwood’s successor when the great one retires.
The things that impressed us most were:
- Narrative structure: Alderman cleverly bookends the novel with letters between the author and publisher of the book, many years after the events of the novel take place, that debate the legitimacy of the historical context of the book. This raises many questions – which I won’t spoil for you here – and ends on a twist that finishes the workout your brain’s just gone through with a total sucker punch.
- No exaggeration: Other than ‘the power’ itself, the things that happen to men in the book have all been imposed on women in real life: genital mutilation; removal of legal powers, finances and social status; rape and sexual assault. Alderman has merely applied them to a different gender and, in doing so, exposes the horror of those acts. Complacency has no place in this book and you’ll challenge the things you accept as social norms forever after reading.
- Women can be bad, too: This isn’t a book about a simple reversal of fortunes for the genders. Alderman doesn’t suggest that if women had the power the world would be a better place. There are women in this book who take having ‘the power’ as an opportunity to abuse men – physically, emotionally, sexually – and there are those who try to use it for good. No one is beyond reproach or the seductive powers of control. The Power exposes the frailties of humanity rather than proposing one gender has the right to rule.
The Power has its finger firmly on the pulse of 21st century social debate. This book applies to political debates in the US, UK and Ireland in relation to state intervention over women’s bodies and lives. It corresponds to shifts in political power sharing across Europe and further afield. And, it responds to ongoing debates on cultures that uphold practices such as female genital mutilation.
Like the infamous line from Hamlet, The Power holds a mirror up to our nature to expose our failings and challenge accepted norms on all levels.
This book is about us right now and will be remembered as one of the most profound cultural insights into our time.
What’s not so good about it?
It ended. It’s rare that book club agree completely about a book but we were all profoundly moved by this one.
Everyone should read this book and reflect on the important concepts it raises.
This MUST be the Baileys Prize winner – nothing else in the shortlist, or that I’ve read this year, touches it.
Photo credit: Felix Clay