Naomi Alderman’s The Power has had momentum since it was published in 2016. It won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2017. It’s been acquired for television adaptation. And, most enticingly of all for impenitent liberals like me, it was one of Barack Obama’s best books of the year.
The premise is disarmingly simple: what would happen if women were to develop, almost overnight, the capacity to seriously injure others – and by others I mean, in the main, men? How would the world shift if the fundamental determinant of sexual relations – that a man is physically stronger than a woman – was turned on its head?
Out of that, Alderman develops a novel that is one part dystopian thriller and one part sly deliberation on gender politics. The book works perfectly well as a thriller. As a satire, it’s bravely magnificent, although it is occasionally really hard to read. It contains scenes which some readers will find distort their impressions of the whole book – one good friend of mine found herself disliking the book because of some of these scenes. I guess this post is a kind of argument with her, even though she doesn’t know I’m writing it.
You have to say this about The Power: man, it’s cold. I mean really, really cold. The logic of the inversion of gender power that she has invented leads Alderman to treat of sexual assault, and she follows that logic down into depths which some readers won’t want to descend – it is these scenes which my friend objected to. Those scenes are some of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen or read or heard (and I consumed The Power as an audiobook, more of which in a second). One particular episode in a refugee camp towards the end of the book is so extreme that it might lead you to push the whole book to one side, in some disgust.
But the political logic of what Alderman is doing in The Power demands that scene. Nothing she describes in it hasn’t happened the other way around. There are places in the world where it is probably happening right now. It happened in Europe within living memory. It will happen, and it will go on happening. That’s cold, woman. And it’s true.
I think these almost satirical aspects of the book are more powerful than the story itself. Just before I started scribbling these words, I read a fantastic profile of Jordan Peele in the New York Times, and it got me thinking about the resonances between The Power and Peele’s magnificent Get Out. Both are works wearing the trappings of popular entertainment that make potent remarks about political injustice. Peele uses horror movies as his framework, Alderman apocalyptic thrillers.
But because Peele’s story is so focussed on individuals, on a single sequence of events that could happen over a weekend, the narrative is more concentrated and, I think, more powerful. I’m talking here, as I always talk about these things on this blog, as a writer who’s trying to understand how other, better, writers do things. I think Get Out is a work of narrative genius because of its compression, and because of its humour. The Power is more sprawling, more epic in its scope – and I know (from bitter personal experience) how hard it is to maintain narrative tension on a broad canvas.
A quick word on the audiobook. The main narrator is Adjoa Andoh, with whom I’ve been a little bit in love for most of my adult life, and it’s a hell of a thing she pulls off here, because there are so many voices to encompass: an American politician and her daughter, a British gangster, a Nigerian journalist, a Moldovan maniac. I’ve only come round to audiobooks recently, and I’ve come to the realisation that the performance of them is as much to do with their success as the words being performed, and Andoh’s performance is prodigious.
And there’s another thing. Alderman very cleverly frames her story with fragments from a correspondence between a man and a woman of the future, discussing the events of the story from the ‘other side’ of the gender shift. This man and woman are historians and writers, and they are debating the book itself. The final exchange – the epilogue, I suppose – rounds off the book magnificently. The last line is an absolute dream and punches as hard as anything that goes before it.
Adjoa Andoh doesn’t read these sections. There are four other voices on the credits: Thomas Judd and Phil Nightingale are the two male voices, but there are two other female voices. One is Emma Fenney, and the other – the one who might be reading the words of the female historian and writer which close the book – is Naomi Alderman. You’ll have to read the book – or listen to the audio – to discover just how delicious that is.