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Book review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power (2016) by Naomi Alderman cover.

Sometimes, you don’t immediately click with a book. It took me a while to read the first 100 pages of The Power; I dipped in and out, every couple of days. After the hype surrounding it and my excitement to get started, once I did start reading it it took a conscious effort to pick it up and carry on. Sure, I was interested, but it hadn’t quite grabbed me yet. Then, just like that, I demolished the remaining 240 pages in a matter of days.

As you may be aware, this book has done pretty well for itself. Only the other day it was awarded the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I heard about it from the author’s discussion of it in her Guardian articles, and the idea was immediately intriguing.

That’s the big thing it has going for it; a brilliant central idea that one day – ‘The Day of the Girls’ – women gain an ability to control electricity. This opens so many possibilities that it’s hard not to be drawn to it. Alongside this great idea comes a wealth of potential for social commentary, which The Power exploits in buckets. Following four central characters – Margot, a mayor in America who battles against her superior male governor; Tunde, a Nigerian teen who takes to journalism; Roxy, the daughter of a British mobster; Allie, an abused orphan who finds her place within a new religion – we get a transcontinental view of the way the world changes after it finds out women have this power.

Alderman doesn’t leave a stone unturned – as the tides of authority start to change and we head towards the inevitable inverted dynamic of today’s society, there are condemning comments on rape culture, the pornography industry, dictatorships, religious extremism and even child armies. It’s thoroughly researched and respectfully written, unveiling truths about our world through the sci-fi-favourite format of an alternative reality.

The writing is confident, bold in places, a bit unnecessarily sweary in others, but engaging. Alderman’s decision to write in third person aids this as she’s easily able to switch between the characters without feeling obliged to immerse us in their inner thoughts, keeping the pace up throughout. We get the information we need and every chapter matters, like scenes in a film – it’s not surprising that it’s already been picked up for a TV adaptation, the script for which Alderman will write.

The multitude of characters does not detract from their full realisation. Each is distinct and memorable, developing realistically as the world changes around them. Only the first few chapters, on or before the Day of the Girls, seem a little inconsistent in retrospect. The characters Allie and Roxy are set up by an event but they bloom into a slightly different distinction once they embark on their journey. This was one of the reasons it took me a while to settle in.

Another confusing thing was the start: the novel is introduced by a piece of correspondence between unspecified people called Neil and Naomi. I took Naomi to be the author, but the words suggested that the following story was written by Neil. Huh? I concluded that I ‘didn’t get it’ and forgot about it once the story kicked off. The intention of these couple of pages is made clear only at the end of the novel; after the last page, more correspondence ensues, discussing the merits of the preceding manuscript. It becomes apparent that the novel you have just read is a speculative history of ‘The Cataclysm’ written years after society has settled into matriarchy. The conversation is between teacher Naomi and writer Neil, and some last-minute gems are sprinkled in criticising today’s male-dominated publishing industry (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Alderman took some quotes directly from her own experience as a female author).

I’m glad The Power is getting attention. It’s a worthwhile and clever exploration, accessible to everyone, with an important message behind it: there’s good and bad on both sides. I recommend it to men and women alike – it’s there to start a conversation, and it’s definitely a conversation we should be having. Its structure and wealth of characters makes it ideal for television, and I look forward to seeing what else Alderman brings to the table in expanding her world for the small screen.