Book review

A world where women are the dominant sex? This timely novel imagines it, 5,000 years from now

In a women-ruled country, the men struggle for power in to a literal battle of the sexes

The Almighty has returned as promised, and She dwells in human flesh again.

The time: 5,000 years from now. A writer sends his manuscript to his mentor, asking for her opinion. In his new work, he presents what he calls “a sort of ‘novelisation’ of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative” of how the contemporary world order came to be.

This “novelisation” is the meat of Naomi Alderman’s novel, The Power. Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, it is a masterpiece of speculative fiction that explores a world in which women are the dominant sex, blessed with a superhuman ability to generate a sort of electrical current that places them, for perhaps the first time in history, on a physical level unmatched, never mind surpassed, by men.

On “the day of the girls”, the world changes. Young women across the world suddenly find themselves no longer at the mercy of men. Reports filter in of teenage girls being able to generate an electrical current, much like eels, that they can turn against those who seek to harm them.

At first, few people believe these disparate stories, which connect places as far apart as India, Nigeria, the UK and the US. It’s only when Tunde, an intrepid, fledgling reporter from Lagos, puts up a video of a young woman repelling a harasser with an electric shock the international community acknowledges the development.

No country for men

The Power tells the story of how the world changed, tracing events to the dawn of the “Cataclysm Age”. It does this by tying together five “main” narratives, featuring: Roxanne Monk, daughter of a British underworld leader, Margot Cleary, an ambitious mayor of a “major metropolitan area” in the US, Jocelyn, her troubled daughter, Tunde, a journalist from Nigeria who chronicles the events as they spool over the world, and Allie, or Mother Eve, a young religious leader set on altering the very foundation of the world, no matter what the cost.

Their narratives collide in Bessapara, a new “women-ruled” country in Moldova, where the president, Tatiana Moskalev, seeks to raise the flag of a new world, one where the injustices of the past will be righted, and women returned to a place of dignity and power. Of course, other factions, notably the deposed king of Saudi Arabia, have issues with this development, and do all they can to stop it, catapulting the world into a literal war of the sexes.

Alderman’s story teases out the subtleties of power, tracing its varying manifestations: from a freeing, joyful force in the streets of Riyadh, where Saudi women take back the rights they have been denied for far too long; to a twisting, corrupting force, leading women to act, sadly, like the worst of the men they seek to subdue. Her players are all too human, the force of politics and its undertow of corruption, criminality and chaos a constant presence that disrupts their lives and makes the attainment of their ideals a difficult, often deadly, process.

The Power is a self-aware book. It begins with what seems, to many angry readers, a utopic premise. Imagine if women, the largest and most long-subjugated group in the history of civilisation, could be unafraid, could throw off their shackles and walk outside, could let go the burden of fear and uncertainty that haunts even the most well-off among us. Imagine if, for once, it were men who had to feel nervous when they walked past large groups of women, men who were told they could not step out of bounds, me who could not claim rights to a woman’s body.

But the narrative spins us past this quickly, and Alderman reminds us that, man or woman, power works the same way. It goes to your head, and it’s a rare soul who can control it, especially when that soul is already inflamed by what it sees as righteous anger and seeks justice for centuries of wrong.

Fiction for the facts of the time

The Power is a timely book. In 2016 we saw Hillary Clinton, the first nominated female contender for arguably the most powerful office in the world, lose to a male candidate who appeared – and still appears – unqualified for the job. We have seen “men’s rights groups” rise up against what they call “feminazis”, women who dare to ask for the same rights and securities as men.

In India, we’ve heard increasingly loud voices against sexual harassment and assault, a rising demand for the removal of sexist and homophobic laws, and the introduction of stricter policies to protect against rape and gender-based violence. The Power plays into both the dreams of feminists as well as their nightmares. It seems to trash “men’s rights activists” at the same time as it, perhaps problematically, validates their points through its more extremist characters. It is feminist in the sense that it literally empowers its female characters, and makes them human, both amazingly and depressingly so.

The Power is not an easy work to negotiate. It seeks to question, disturb, and give its readers food for thought. It takes the age-old idea of the battle of the sexes, and recasts it in a contemporary light, taking care to rope in the connectedness of the modern world, and the many layers to any political or personal decision. There is little black or white in this book, just as there is little black or white to gender. Perhaps the greatest learning to emerge from Alderman’s text is the following question and its answer:

One of them says, “Why did they do it…?”
And the other answers, “Because they could.”
That is the only answer there ever is.

The Power, Naomi Alderman, Penguin Books.

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