Naomi Alderman’s book The Power is very popular and features Margaret Atwood’s review on the cover, which describes it as “Electrifying”. This made it very promising but I always remain skeptical when a book is appreciated by the audience at large. However, Atwood’s opinion matters to me (I wrote my MA thesis on The Handmaid’s Tale) so I was excited.
The influence of Atwood is very present in her work and it actually reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale a lot. The way Alderman has played with gender relations resembles the way Atwood has done this as well but in reverse.
Naomi Alderman is a white woman and I am happy she didn’t portray only white characters (which is the case in The Handmaid’s Tale). I don’t want to say that all white authors do that, but there is a certain risk. It makes sense in a way because you write what you know. In any case, Alderman hasn’t missed representation in her novel. Although there are still predominantly white characters in the novel, Tunde’s somewhat major role and the setting in Eastern Europe make up for some of it.
The main themes in this novel are power and gender relations, and the two are intertwined. I have to be honest that at some point I stopped reading this book because I just had no idea where it was going. I was very skeptical about the world that Alderman had created and some part of me could not accept the way the women in this book were behaving.
The premise of this novel is that all of the sudden women have this ‘power’ of electrifying. It starts to appear in 15 year-olds and slowly expands to most of the women in the world. This creates a disbalance between men and women, with the power now in the hands of women. They actually start behaving like the men in our world do: raping, belittling the other sex, womensplaining, and sexualizing men’s bodies. There is corruption and political decisions are made that influence men’s lives. There are groups of men who start behaving like terrorists in order to gain some control back. Nearing the end of the story, men have no rights left.
“Men are no longer permitted to drive cars. Men are no longer permitted to own businesses. Foreign journalists and photographers must be employed by a woman. Men are no longer permitted to gather together, even in the home, in groups larger than three, without a woman present. Men are no longer permitted to vote – because their years of violence and degredation have shown that they are not fit to rule or govern.”
The most interesting part of this novel is the way it is framed. It starts with a letter from Neil, who works at ‘The Men Writers Association’ to Naomi from ‘Nonesuch House’ (probably a publishing house). This introduction to the world of the novel already indicates how power has shifted when we see that Naomi has written ‘world run by men’ with quotation marks as if this idea is only fictional. When you’ve read the entire novel, which is supposedly written by Neil instead of Naomi Alderman, the story is concluded by a set of letter exchanges between Neil and Naomi. Here, it becomes evident that the world has completely changed and gender roles have switched completely. Naomi does not completely believe Neil’s story, who meant it as a historical novel instead of fiction, and patronizes him completely. She says:
“I mean, it’s a clever idea, I’ll grant you. And maybe worth doing for that reason alone, just as a fun exercise.”
But what is more striking is that she believes the following:
“Surely it makes more sense that it was women who provoked the war. I feel instinctively – and I hope you do, too – that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.”
I would say that the novel’s framing contains the most critique on contemporary gender relations. For example that Naomi says:
“I worry that I might write something that you’ll interpret in the wrong way, and I don’t want that. I know it’s a sensitive topic for you.”
And worst of all, she suggests that he should publish his book under a woman’s name in order to gain more credibility.
Somewhere halfway the novel, my feeling of ‘women wouldn’t do that’ turned to ‘hmm, that all sounds so familiar to what men usually do’ and then into ‘I guess this is the power of having power’.
This book puts gender relations in perspective and pinpoints all the inequalities that are still there but pushed aside by people who believe that feminism has reached its goals and there is no need to fight any longer. It has immense attention to detail which makes it a book worth re-reading and analyzing in-depth.
In the end, I agree with Neil who says
“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”
and Naomi Alderman has managed to play the shell game pretty well.