November 2019 Open Book Group – The Power by Naomi Alderman

Thank you to Sandra for moderating The Power by Naomi Alderman.

 The Power opens with a series of letters between Neil and Naomi. Neil is asking her for an opinion on his draft novel. Neil explains that the point of his book is to show how present-day power structures, based on gender divisions, originated in a brutal matriarchal society that existed 5000 years ago. This society had been destroyed by a cataclysmic event. Neil uses archaeological data to support this thesis, though he accepts many readers will skim over this. Naomi is excited and encourages him to continue. So, as readers, we are presented with The Power. A historical novel by Neil Adam Armon.

Roxy, an English teenager, discovers she has new and seemingly supernatural “power” that enables her to inflict pain. Electrical charges strike out from her fingers, shocking her opponents. The ability to harness these electricity strikes, from skeins growing on their collar bone, rapidly starts emerging in young women throughout the world. Tunde, an aspiring Nigerian journalist, begins documenting the emergence of this power in women. In the USA Margo, a mayor in Wisconsin, discovers her daughter is quickly honing her destructive strikes, while in the southern USA adopted teenager Allie runs away from her abrasive father. She takes refuge in a convent.

We follow the lives of these four protagonists. Tunde becomes a professional journalist travelling the world to witness the social and political upheavals arising from women seriously able to intimidate and hurt men. As men become more subservient women take over political leadership roles. Allie finds she can use her powers to heal people. She brands herself Mother Eve and creates a religious cult following. The son of God is no longer the main object of worship rather it is his mother, mother Eve. Margot set up a military camp, Northstar, to train young women to use their power in a conflict setting. Margo campaigns to be governor of Wisconsin where she uses her power to hurt an opponent during a televised debate. She is considered strong and is duly elected. Roxy manufactures and deals in the drug glitter which enhances the power.

Meanwhile, in Moldavia paramilitary groups of women begin to roam the country. The president‘s wife Tatiana kills her husband, assumes the presidency and unites women under her rule to fight a rebel army headed Awadi-Atif, a member of the Moldovan royal family. Allie and Roxy join her. Allie becomes concerned that Tatiana is behaving increasingly erratically so kills her and takes control of Moldavia. Strict laws limiting the agency of men are instituted. Tunde discovers mass killings of men in Moldavia and he is almost killed himself only to be saved by Roxy who has become attracted to him.

Allie decides that the only way to ensure female supremacy in the world is to ignite global warfare blowing civilisation back to the Stone Age matriarchic societies. This would reboot evolution forcing it to progress again, creating a world where women rule unimpeded.

The novel ends with letters again between Naomi and Neil. Naomi is positive about his draft but suggests it would be better received if it was published under a woman’s name. She fears it would be dismissed under if the author was thought to be a man.

The opening discussion quickly established that most people started the book with high hopes and welcomed the gender reversal concept. However, they felt the plot soon got bogged down and, in the end, the story just petered out. Something about Roxy thinking of having children with Tunde? Seemed unlikely seeing that, at last sighting, she had locked him, starving, in an underground bunker. We all relished Naomi’s recommendation that Neil publishes the book with a female pen name to boost its literary credibility….Ellis Bell, George Elliot eat your heart out.

Several people found the level of violence unnecessarily graphic, spoiling their reading experience. One member did confess, though, to secreting enjoying seeing abusive men being zapped. We were reminded that Alderman’s day job is as a writer of computer games where indiscriminate violence abounds. Had this style seeped into her novel?

Accepting the plot’s shortcomings, one member was positive about the ideas behind the novel as a way of questioning the meaning of gender. Flipping the power imbalance so starkly had engendered an emotional response in her. How ludicrous that men suddenly found themselves unable to drive, leave the house without a guardian etc…..and yet. Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif, OBG’s April read, was referenced.

She had also enjoyed drawings of the archaeological artefacts of women with the power coming out of their hands. The novels argued that these remains proved gender inequalities arose in pre-cataclysmic times. Women were naturally aggressive as they had to protect their young, while men, as the home keepers, were more passive.  This matriarchal aggression had been bred out over the centuries but was now resurfacing in young women. Was Alderman implying our current gender inequalities are a result of our hunter/gatherer past? Why haven’t they been bred out?

Another member cut through with what she described as the “elephant in the room”. Only women can bear children. Taking time out from paid work to raise them often results in an economic imbalance between the sexes reducing women’s independence. Alderman’s direct reversal of the genders did not tackle the restrictions of this fundamental biological difference.

Would the world be different if it was run by women? Many liked to think so, but others were more cynical. Power corrupts etc. We wondered how aggressive other women leaders Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Angela Merkel etc. had to be behind the scenes to maintain power…. very, we concluded if you are operating in a man’s world. But what if you weren’t? We are watching Jacinda Ardern’s trajectory with interest.

Margaret Attwood mentored Alderman and has actively promoted her. Indeed, The Power is dedicated to Margaret and her husband George. How much better the novel could have been if Attwood had written it herself, bemoaned one member.

Our views aside, The Power won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. A competition, ironically, only open to women. Why do we have book prizes exclusively for women? The same does not exist solely for men. Might we not get on our high horses if they did? But that’s a discussion for another day.


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