by Laura Streanga
When I finally have some time off and I try to choose a book, I almost never think of science fiction literature. But if my bookshelves await me with a novel I received from a friend, I will read it regardless of the literary genre. I like to see in the books I receive an experience of self-knowledge: I open them already believing there is connection between me and them, since dear people have chosen them thinking of me, and so reading becomes a search of my own image between the pages.
That’s how I started reading The Power, by Naomi Alderman. At first I thought it would be one of the light reads you devour on the bus, during a break between classes or before bedtime when tiredness does not allow you to focus on something too serious anyway. The fact that the novel is a New York Times bestseller, that the action is as dense as in a film, and the presence of the simplistically portrayed, comic-book characters and clichéd dialogues initially confirmed this impression. But as the plot unfolded, I realised the symbolic nature of the characters and scenes in the novel – and I understood that I had to look behind them, at the society they represent, which reflects, sometimes in a twisted manner, other times in a shockingly honest way, our own world of power plays.
In the dystopia imagined by Alderman, teenage girls develop an organ that allows them to generate electricity and to produce deadly shocks. Young girls are able to awaken this ability and in mature women as well, and very soon the gender balance is irreparably thrown off. The author does not rigorously explore the scientific side of this phenomenon, but goes on to investigate how the entire structure of the patriarchal society breaks and begins to pivot around a new axis.
Families protect their boys, telling them not to come out at night too late or too far, and never alone; Gospels are rewritten, because God cannot be a Father or a Son, but a Mother-Deity; armies are dominated by women because they are “naturally aggressive”, while men are “naturally gentle”; male foetuses are aborted, because any family would like a baby girl; and so on, with every sexist idea or practice we consciously know or which, on the contrary, lies deeply rooted in our vision of the world, is thickened and mocked through the lens of a new power relationship, and then thrown back into the world.
Through disturbingly vivid, oversaturated scenes, Alderman shows us how destructive and arbitrary the power is in the hands of men: revolutions, war crimes, rapes, and political ambitions – all of these populate the world of women in the same way they do in our way too familiar world of men, which they have naturalised for centuries.
The novel does not advance a thesis on how a world ruled by women would necessarily look, nor does it stop at describing the social consequences of a global matriarchate. Rather, it is an analysis of the power manifested not only explicitly, through wars and violence, but also in subtle forms, through sexuality and divination. Abuses, intrigues, obsession with control and personal gain – all these are inherently human traits, which do not depend on the sex of an individual, but on the position they occupy in the world. And once the entire society is built on the basis of a dynamic between the victim and the perpetrator, ethics becomes relative.
Alderman challenges us to rethink our attitudes and to doubt the authenticity of our values, which seem so ingrained into the way the whole system works. With every new repelling detail she adds, the reader takes a step backwards and wonders, would I have had the power to see that it was unfair? If I had lived in a world where women have complete control, would I have thought for a moment how arbitrary their dominance is?
The Power follows the fates of four main characters, symbolizing the major forces that shape a society: politics, religion, mafia, and media. Margot is a senator in the States, and initially attempts to conceal her ability to cause electric shocks for fear he will lose her voters; Allie electrocutes her adoptive father while he abuses her and takes refuge at a convent, where she becomes the prophetess of the new religious cult; Roxy leads a criminal network and takes advantage of the chaos that unleashes with the women’s revolution; And Tunde, the true hero of the novel, dedicates his life to journalism, trying to document all the horrors of war and discovering how fragile his life is in a world of women. Unfortunately, the characters never appear to us as more than empty shells, themselves puppets in a world where all that matters is the social role of an individual.
The book is presented to us as a historical novel, written millennia later by Neil Adam Armon – an anagram of author’s name – in an attempt to discover how the world in which they live, in which women dominate men, has developed. The story is flanked by the correspondence between Neil, a member of the Association of Male Writers, and Naomi, a successful author who reads and comments his manuscript.
After expressing reservations about the verisimilitude of the world described by Neil – because strength and courage are an integral part of the idea of femininity anyway, and it could never have been otherwise! – Naomi makes a suggestion to Neil, for the sake of their friendship and of the respect she has for him: if he wants the manuscript to be valued at its true worth, and not as part of men’s literature, wouldn’t it be better to publish it using a female pen name?
Once I finished reading, it wasn’t hard for me to understand why the friend who gave me the novel thought of me when he chose it. The Power is a feminist work in the true sense of the word, pointing a finger at the sexism still so present in the world through habits and education.
Moreover, the novel is moving away from the myth of the tender and maternal woman, trying to convince us that a matriarchal society would develop as toxic and amoral as the world of men. But The Power does not tell us anything further than that – the reader is allowed to reflect whether the desire for control and domination is essential to human nature, or if there are ways in which we can reach equality and cooperation between the sexes.