(Little, Brown & Co., 2017)
The nightly news has become a flood of narratives of sexual harassment and the rape of women and young girls by men in positions of power which lends a decided appeal to Naomi Alderman's tale of young girls suddenly getting "the power"—an ability to zap others with their own self-generated electrical charges. While several reviews of Alderman's prize-winning new novel reference the violence enacted on men (and boys) in specific scenes, there are few who seem to understand the devastating appeal of a world where girls and women quite literally have more power than men. Alderman does a fabulous job of seducing the reader with her split narrative of individual characters coming into their own power. These are girls and women who have suffered abuse— sexual, physical, emotional—and we cheer when we see them realize they finally have power to fight back, to protect themselves. The single male voice is a young journalist (Tunde) who early on sees the sea change coming and approves: he wants women to have this power, he finds it both sexy and righteous. Of course, at the heart of Alderman's tale is the idea that neither gender is capable of holding to the moral high ground when all the power is in their hands. Women can be just as violent and self-serving as men. But this doesn't detract from the uplift of watching Allie, a young black foster girl finally able to fight back against her obscenely abusive foster "father" or Roxy, the young illegitimate daughter of a London gangster, escape the assassins sent to kill her mother and ultimately take over her murderous father's domain.
Of course, this is science fiction and there is world building going on throughout the text: the individual characters narratives are interspersed with pseudo-archeological images of primitive figures representing various aspects of the religion that comes out of "the power" and the entire novel is bookended with letters from a humble, self-effacing male historian, Neil Armon, begging approval from an established female historian Naomi. Alderman's sarcasm is strong here—the male writer's letters read as obsequious as those of real world women academics and writers forced to beg approval from more established men.
Alderman's world making is not subtle in its effort to highlight all the many ways women are forced to live and work and even believe that we are second-class citizens. The new religion is female-centered with "Mother Eve" shifting the focus of the world's largest religions, “Jews look to Miriam, not Moses...Muslims: look to Fatima, not Muhammad. Buddhists: remember Tara, the mother of liberation. Christians: pray to Mary for your salvation.” Mother Eve's message is popular: women create and it is this ability that is the true sign of power.
Alderman makes use of social media throughout the novel: the new religion spreads fast via videos on YouTube, a male journalist posts footage to YouTube of riots and revolutionary movements until CNN and the BBC put him on the payroll, and online groups spring up fueling the rise of an anti-woman “men's rights” movement.
The empowering narratives of the first half of the novel take a sharp turn as women and girls take both control and revenge in India, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. One small Eastern European nation splits in two with the exiled Saudi King in the North rallying men and a former female gymnast turned dictator declaring a nation of women in the South. The final chapters of the novel show a descent into violence, madness, and ultimately "the cataclysm" when Mother Eve decides that the only way to “make things right” is to start all over again. This rapid descent into dystopia from a hoped-for woman-centered utopia is horribly jarring and it is perhaps as devastatingly disappointing as turning on the evening news. Alderman is masterful in her seduction: so many of us who suffer under the constraints of male-centered gender hierarchy will (not so) secretly revel in the initial moments of empowerment in this novel: the fantasy of being powerful in a world where women are often powerless is incredibly compelling. But with power can come violence and with untempered revenge can come global devastation.
Alderman shows the various ways societies try to quell rebellion and eradicate difference: girls are forced into camps, some countries execute women as witches, others control women with drugs and rhetoric and, of course, the United States finds a way to profit creating a private mercenary force of young women who can be deployed for the right price as "peacekeepers."
Another of the novel's main characters is American politician Margot Cleary, initially a respectable mother and mayor of a small city in Massachusetts. She is shown to outwardly bow to the blowhard male governor only to publicly quite literally shock him with her own power during a televised gubernatorial debate. Despite her fears that her momentary loss of control has cost her the election, instead it increases her popularity and she is soon elected governor and well on her way to becoming the next President.
As we read, there are markers that all is not well: sections in the book are titled with a sort of countdown from “ten years to go” until “here it comes” and we learn that the old adage “if women ran the world there would be no war” is very far from the truth. Women and girls have progressed from self-defense to torture and rape and finally to world-wide "cataclysm." There are descriptions of brutality enacted by women on men and boys as well as other women, that rival our world's evening news reports of the violence that men do. Alderman challenges the gender binary by questioning not only the simplicity of “men = violence” but also how those who do not fit into the new world order are treated.
The “power” comes from a newly discovered muscle or organ that runs along the collarbone. Called a "skein," not every girl has one and some have "defective" skeins. There are also some boys and men who have a skein although the novel only provides one example. Margot Cleary's daughter Jocelyn has a "faulty" skein; she is teased and tormented and finds solace only in a relationship with a boy who has a skein. Both are rejected as “abnormal” and Cleary responds to the relationship by forbidding Jocelyn to see the boy, branding him a terrorist, and shipping her off to camp. Later when Roxy “the most powerful” of all the women loses her power to a violent attack, she finds comfort with the journalist Tunde as they escape a scene of horrible mass murder in a refugee camp finding solace in the strength of their shared perceived weakness. Finally, in one of the bookend sections Neil Armon writes, “Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? What a man is not. Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: It's not there.” The point here is that inequality is a terrible thing whether men or women are in power. And while there is solace—and titillation—for women in the revenge fantasies at the outset of this novel, there are also lessons to be learned: the brutal imbalance of power that many of us suffer under cannot be solved through a simple reversal. Putting women in charge might make things better for a while (a very short while in Alderman's fiction) but ultimately, someone will always suffer until everyone is valued as equal.