Every now and then you come across a book that feels like a modern classic. It doesn’t happen often. The only real example I can think of is when I encountered ‘Citizen‘ by Claudia Rankine; I knew I was reading a book that would feature in Literature and Culture university courses in years to come. A book that not only captures an era but will also speak to future generations about what that era felt like to those living within it.
I had not expected anything on this level from Alderman’s latest novel. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have faith in her ability to tell a story and to write brilliantly, just that an explicitly Feminist work of speculative fiction (written by an author who has been mentored by Margaret Atwood), didn’t, on the surface, seem all that new. I couldn’t question the importance of the themes, but I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced that the argument had moved on, at least not for reader like myself, who spent her teenage years steeped in second wave Feminist classics.
‘The Power’ is framed by a series of letters in which ‘Neil Adam Armon’ writes to ‘Naomi’ from ‘The Men Writers Association,’ sycophantically pitching his historical novel. It’s all extremely knowing and clever, and it’s very hard to ignore comparisons with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Once the body of the novel starts however, Alderman shows that she is writing her own story, and it’s very different, though no less disturbing, than Atwood’s 1980s dystopia.
The premise is simple. Girls around the world have suddenly developed a power which means they are now stronger than boys and men. They can transmit this power to women, and the novel begins to set out a very convincing case that all our concepts of gender come down to who has the strength to hurt the other. Without going into details, the tables are also turned when it comes to sex, with women being easily able to threaten and abuse men. Thus one of the four protagonists, an ambitious male reporter, realises that it takes a whole new level of courage to run towards a conflict when there is a very real probability of rape if you end up separated from your protectors. We’re soon shown that this new power isn’t just physical, but an emotional, spiritual and cultural force. The book covers cults, internet trolls and high-stakes players in power politics, looking at the terrifying ways in which they respond to this new reality.
I don’t want to spoil the conclusion the book reaches, or even all the fascinating questions it asks. All I’ll say is that it made me question the world I live in and the assumptions it is so easy to take for granted. It will be for future students to write essays on ‘The Power’, exploring the characters, themes and plot twists. Alderman seems to take in every facet of modern life, from the terrors of slavery and the sex trade to the pretty young man who does the human interest stories on the news (‘The network had found him. Just trying something out. While we’re at it, Kristen, why don’t you wear your glasses onscreen now, it’ll give you gravitas. We’re going to see how the numbers play out this way’). ‘The Power’ is a book which knows its literary heritage, but also knows that there are new stories to be told and new places for novels to go. It deserves to win The Bailey’s Prize and, whether it does or not, it is going to a book with a lasting legacy and an important message for readers today and in the future.