“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.”
Naomi Alderman’s electrifying novel “The Power” is framed as a book within a book; it is an historical novel from thousands of years in the future. In a time ill-defined but not to distant from now, girls all over the world begin to discover that they have a power, an electrical charge from within which they can nurture and control to enormous effect. Slowly, powerfully, girls and women awaken their inner power and begin to resist the patriarchies which have dominated the world since time immemorial.
“The younger women can wake it up in the older ones; but from now on all women will have it.”
Through the alternating, interwoven stories of Allie, Margot, Roxy, and Tunde, “The Power” traces the way in which the world reacts as women gain and exert their power. In this dystopian future, it is the men who are afraid.
“There was a time that a woman could not walk alone here, not if she were under seventy, and not with certainty even then. There had been protests for many years, and placards, and shouted slogans. These things rise up and afterwards it is as if it had never been. Now the women are making what they call ‘a show of force’, in solidarity with those who were killed under the bridges and starved of water.”
Allie is a battered and bruised teenager, bounced from one abusive foster home to the next, harboring her hatred and vengeance with quiet calm.
“Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl becomes a grown woman. Step by step until it is done.”
Within a short time, women’s movements – protests and rebellions – are sweeping the world. Allie is one of the first, but certainly not the only, girls to strike out with her new found power. Roxy, too, has a traumatic childhood, but this daughter of a powerful gangster soon reveals that she may be the most powerful woman on earth. Margot has political ambitions, and she harnesses the tide of female power to carry her to greater heights. And then there is Tunde, a young opportunist whose first hand video footage of some of these world events converts him into a front-line journalist of this cataclysmic change. For all of the characters, there is a constant balancing act about when and how to use their powers, but there is also a common understanding.
“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.“
I have such a love/hate relationship with dystopian novels, probably because my dark and twisty inner thoughts don’t need much encouragement to despair over the future of humanity. Be that as it may, “The Power” is the perfect case for why dystopian novels thrive and why I will continue to devour and be devoured by them. Alderman’s dystopian vision is like quicksilver, mesmerizing and empowering, horrifying and disheartening. She turns the world on its head with such confidence and courage, taking the “what ifs” to their very extreme. Her writing is Atwood-esque in all the best ways. “The Power” is brilliant and well deserving of its nomination for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
“There is a part in each of us which holds fast to the old truth: either you are the hunter or you are the prey. Learn which you are. Act accordingly. Your life depends upon it.”
Bonus excerpt that is eerily prescient and extra cringeworthy:
“It’s only after the exit polls that they start to think something might be wrong, and even then – I mean they can’t be this wrong. But they can. It turns out the voters lied. Just like the accusations they always throw at hard-working public servants, the goddamned electorate turned out to be goddamned liars themselves. They said they respected hard work, commitment and moral courage. They said that the candidate’s opponent had lost their vote the moment she gave up on reasoned discourse and calm authority.”