Review: Naomi Alderman’s The Power

Published

Emily Menger-Davies
Writer

In a plot driven by gender relations, there was a missed opportunity here to explore LGBTQ themes in the novel.”

Naomi Alderman’s The Power envisages a world in which gender relations are turned upside-down, as overnight, women develop a new organ: a “skein” along their collarbone, which enables them to send out a powerful electrostatic force. This triggers a global female revolution in which women mobilise against men, forming armies and governments, ending in a turbulent cataclysm of power. The novel is told from the perspectives of four central characters: Allie the abused foster child turned spiritual leader Mother Eve, Roxy the daughter of an English crime boss, Margot an American politician, and Tunde, a young Nigerian journalist. However, whilst this novel is interesting and thought-provoking, its presentations of violence, gender and sexuality could be further developed.

The Power has received widespread critical acclaim, having been awarded the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and listed as one of the New York Times’ best 10 books of 2017. Published in the time following Trump’s election, the novel was received in the perfect reactionary political climate in which to establish its roots. Frustrations over political gender relations are vicariously lived through the novel, bringing to mind a particular extract in which Margot wins a political victory after she sends out a “bolt” of energy in anger during a live TV debate, knocking out her condescending male opponent. Whilst perhaps being satisfyingly cathartic, this demonstrates the problematic way in which power is presented in the novel as a purely physical characteristic and acts of violence are rewarded. Violence in the novel is portrayed as being necessary to obtain and maintain power and is also committed between female characters through acts of subterfuge in a race to the top of a new female pecking order. Alderman’s matriarchal society is shown to simply replace its patriarchal predecessor and power is abused through identical forms of brutality and betrayal.

This presentation of power as synonymous with physicality and violence fails to address the complexity of hegemonic relationships. This can be seen in the global nature of the novel as there is little cultural differentiation made between regions, constructing men and women as moving as two homogenous groups, regardless of ethnic background. In a critique of George Orwell’s 1984, Will Self controversially described the novel as stunted by “obvious didacticism”, and I feel that this could also be applicable in this case. Whilst Alderman presents an interesting political experiment, the novel undertakes an Orwellian quality in its overtly political nature and, I would argue, loses character depth and plot consistency in the surety of its message.

In a plot driven by gender relations, I also feel that there was a missed opportunity here to explore LGBTQ themes in the novel. Alderman doesn’t shy away from exploring sexuality through the sexual implications “the power” brings, as new forms of fetishes quickly develop from the phenomenon, homosexuality is noticeably absent, except from in fleeting, minor characters. Relationships are predominantly heterosexual, and characters seem to conform to relatively traditional social expectations, as even the most forthright among them are hurriedly designated a love interest towards the end in a series of messily tied up conclusions.

The novel engages in an open and honest way with current gender issues, but there are inconsistencies and marked absences in its presentation of power and hierarchy. Alderman presents a daring and challenging premise of a radical reimagining of gender relations, but any sense of female empowerment is undercut by its striking resemblance to the current status quo. Perhaps this is intentionally done in order to demonstrate similarities when it comes to the possession of power, but I feel that to hail this novel as a revolutionary feminist text would be mistaken. Alderman presents an engaging contribution to current political debates on gender with an original and enjoyable read but perhaps does not let the imagination go far enough in envisioning what form this new, complex landscape would take.