Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book review: The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016)

This rather tendentious speculative thriller posits a world where women are endowed with a mysterious power that gives them a physical advantage over men. Starting with a scattering of girls, women start to realise that they have the power to generate electricity from their hands. Some older women are shown how to use the power by the younger ones. In some women, the power is stronger than it is in others.

The plot develops as women use the power they have been given to change the political settlement in countries around the world. It is driven by a handful of major characters – Tunde Edo, a male Nigerian reporter who disseminates news of the phenomenon using the internet; Allie Montgomery-Taylor, a young woman who lives in the American south, who hears voices in her head and who launches a cult, adopting as her own the epithet “Mother Eve”; Roxy Monke, a young British girl whose father is a gangster and whose mother is killed by thugs one day; and Margot Clearly, the mayor of a city in the USA.

The narrative courses along at a breathless pace and the characterisation is good. You get to understand the people whose lives are being laid open to your scrutiny and you can empathise with their stories. The pathos embodied in the story of Allie is thick. Sexually assaulted by her adoptive father, Allie kills the man one day at the beginning of the spate of electrocutions that proliferate suddenly throughout the world, just as things start to escape the control of the authorities, and flees her house, ending up in a convent. It is here that she is able to build her reputation as a woman who has been touched in some way by God, a being that she formulates in her utterances as a female, but one whose essence lies beyond the conventional categories used to classify people in the secular world.

The way the novel works reminded me of ‘Blindness’, the 1995 novel (translated from Portuguese and published in English in 1997) by Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, which when I read it I also found to be tendentious. That novel also deals with an unexplained phenomenon that afflicts a large number of people, in its case when a number of people in the community suddenly go blind for no discernible reason. The political process in the society being described is impacted as the government takes steps to contain what they think is a contagion.

But you feel cornered by the inexorable flow of events, events that restrict the area within which your imagination has available for movement, and as though there were only one way that things are able to be interpreted. Allegory can be airless and claustrophobic like this: this is an entirely artificial place, the world of this novel, where the author seems to have autocratic control over people and events that are depicted. If you screw down the story so tightly, the imagination has no place to wander. The language itself has to provide places where the reader can roam free like a lion on the veldt. I’m a big fan of Saramago but this novel of his I consider be a failure.

Another failure (in my opinion) this book reminded me of is J.M Coetzee’s ‘The Childhood of Jesus’. There’s the same strangulation of hope and a sense of futility that pushes aside a sense of impending disaster the author wants to convey, because you feel as though the cards are completely stacked against the hero from the outset.

The internet and social media get some play in this novel by Alderman, who is British, but more could have been done in a similar vein. The author is on Twitter but for whatever reason she didn’t see fit to use it as a device in the novel for advancing the plot or for developing character.

‘The Power’ is a competent novel but it’s one that is probably more interesting for women than for men. I read about a third of it before putting it down, bored with it. I felt a little exploited, and in the end came to resent the underlying narrative where men are forever complicit in the abuse of women, despite the undeniable fact that there is no doubt that this is true in many cases. But more than this, the novel’s entire premise lies in the fact that the interests of women and men are somehow inimical to one another. There is a great scene that offers a counterpoint to this theme that takes place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the women start to take over the streets vacated by the suddenly powerless authorities. Here Tunde meets Noor, who takes him to witness what happens and at the end of the day leads him to an apartment where they make love.

So there are moments when men and women complement each other in ways that are elemental and that in normal daily life underpin the coherence of society. But these moments are vanishingly rare in the context that the book maps out for us. For the most part, the book visualises women and men as inhabiting separate spheres of interest. This is what I found a bit alienating, because the logic of this structural device is all-encompassing, affecting every part of the book in the same way, I imagine, that a woman’s whole life is impacted by the need to look after her safety on the streets and at home, in any place where she is likely to encounter a man.

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