In the near-future, and very suddenly, young girls develop the ability to deliver electric shocks via their hands. The source is a previously unnoticed piece of anatomy, called a skein, that lies along their collarbones. Although it develops on its own in children, they can help awaken the skeins of older women, and it changes everything, quite literally shifting the balance of power in society. In The Power, Naomi Alderman inverts our reality, in which influential, predatory men can ruin women’s lives in an instant, and documents the fallout.
Reading this book now, today, is surreal. Partly because the world seems to morphing into bad B-movie about a slow apocalypse; apocalyptic and dystopian reads tend to trigger a different sort of response in me these days. Creating new art, and commentary on it, is more difficult, and time doesn’t seem to be moving in normal ways. And then there’s the fact that, just as I finished the book, the news became filled with explosive reporting on decades-long cover-ups of myriad horrific sex scandals in the media. Maybe “surreal” doesn’t quite cover it.
The news has become inescapable, as more and more women have stepped forward and raised their voices against the abuses of power that kept them silent until now, and couldn’t help but tangle my thinking about this novel. We live in a world in which women aren’t believed, are scoffed at, are devalued, are judged culpable for acts committed against them by men, and men hold the lion’s share of social, political, and economic power. Our reality and the reality of The Power bump up against one another, creating serious cognitive dissonance—especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
The novel follows the movement of five characters through a world convulsing from the shocking change. Allie is a mixed-race teenager with a voice inside her head; she escapes from a sexually abusive foster home and uses social media to build her own religion on the bones of the old. Margot is a divorced single mom at the beginning of a promising political career; one of her young daughters, Jocelyn has the power, but it doesn’t manifest reliably, making her feel like an outsider. Worse, Jocelyn is being dragged along in the wake of her mother’s political aspirations, and is uncomfortable with the role she’s been given. Roxy is the illegitimate daughter of a mobster who comes into her power on the same day her mother is murdered by his rivals; with her new skills, she’s able to take a place in the family business she might otherwise have been denied. And Tunde, a Nigerian man, and the only male point of view character, begins a new life as a freelance journalist, traveling the world to observe as cultures and societies cope with the sudden, immense strength of their women.
This book can’t help but be about gender, but I didn’t come away from it thinking about gender in new ways. What hooked me was the human element: the reminders of the people you hurt, simply because you can. It is a damning examination of how power, once thrust upon someone inside an already sick system, inevitably changes them. The characters are altered by the ways they use their power, and they all use it in different ways: to create personal safety, to seek revenge, even accidentally. Power itself isn’t gendered, but it is portrayed as a type of cultural currency that, in the weak or greedy, leads inevitably to corruption.
Even as the book flings itself into a searing critique of how power is used in a world in which a long-oppressed class can suddenly fight back, it also vastly over-simplifies what gender is. This isn’t an intersectional examination of power dynamics across a spectrum of individuals, but instead a deliberate flipping of the power dynamics of cisgender men and women. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—after all, the concept of binary gender is only starting to break down in mainstream society, as younger generations with more robust ideas of gender fluidity and less patience for being sorted age into their own voices, their own power. We have a long way to go for the vibrancy of the gender spectrum comes to be a widely accepted part of our culture, and for all people across it to be respected and protected, wherever they live or travel. This, then, may indeed by the book for the current place and time: on the cusp of change, it shows the harm toxic masculinity has inflicted, and how flawed the gender binary can be. It explores the damage power can wreak if simply given to a class of people who have been abused, mistreated, and devalued their whole lives, if the systems by which we organize our lives are not first destroyed, then rebuilt anew.
As The Power examines how cisgender women use their newfound abilities to free themselves from various types of oppression, it also shows how cisgender men respond to the tectonic change in their circumstances, including social organization and segregation. A tongue-in-cheek framing device adapts a situation many women have found themselves in, as a man imploringly seeks advice from a woman who repeatedly condescends to him. It suggests a future in which binary gender remains ascendent, simply with cisgender women holding all the cards. In eliding intersectionality and socioeconomic complexity, it becomes a complicated book to unpack.
The Power is, then, a fantasy about acquiring the strength to move through the world without fear, but also a horror story about what happens when you let your influence control who you are and alter your moral center. It’s also a warning: the answer to our problems isn’t simply to grant cisgender women the keys to the kingdom; binary gender is a social construct just as fallible and corruptible as the patriarchal structures firmly rooted in our culture.
Alderman doesn’t explicitly make the point that true equality lies in divorcing power from biology. But The Power—gripping, imaginative, and brutal—does ask difficult questions about the nature of power itself, and what we should do with it. It doesn’t spoon-feed us answers, instead showing us that answers often don’t exist. Power, and its abuse, is a problem that doesn’t yet have a solution.