The Power by Naomi Alderman – Book Review

On the face of it, The Power is a work of science fiction, a tale of the world as we know it being turned upside down as an electrical power is awoken in women across the world, allowing them to discharge electricity, and with it pain and control, from their fingertips. Pretty soon, women rule the world and men are living in fear.

But it’s important not to let what could be a gimmicky, dystopian tale put people off – underneath, this book is so much more. Alderman controls the ‘gimmick’ by making her narrative mature and real. Although there are high power scenes of the damage and carnage the power can wreak,  a sub-plot about a drug smuggling bad-ass of and a narcissistic politician’s rise to power despite a multitude of faux-pas (hello, 2017) where the story comes into its own is when Alderman delves into society.

The geopolitical setting to this story is great and Alderman paints the changes in different types of societies well. As women realise that the only thing between their freedom and men controlling them is whether or not they put to use the electric charge running through their veins, the world starts changing – and fast. In the West boys and girls are separated at school. Soon the Power is seen as an attractive thing to have, and girls whose Powers aren’t as strong as others feel ashamed. Electric charges are used to help advertise beauty products, soft drinks. Faith for the old prophets starts to waver, and the pious now pray to Mary, not Jesus.  Elsewhere, the oppressive Saudi Arabian regime with its appalling treatment of women as second class citizens is brought crippled to its knees, where it deserves to be. Women in Moldova imprisoned and used as sex slaves  are set free, and Queens take to their thrones.

Of course power corrupts,  and so this was never going to be a magical utopia with Alderman trying to paint a world run by women as harmonious and happy. It isn’t, it is simply inverted. Gender inequality doesn’t lead to good things, regardless of which gender is oppressed.

One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’
And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’
That is the only answer there ever is

Here is where Alderman’s sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant points of detail really made the book for me. From a female publisher asking a male writer to write under a female pseudonym to be a more attractive prospect to men in Moldova needing to register a female guardian and not being able to travel alone and young boys being ‘curbed’ by electricity in order to restrict their sexual pleasure, the Power used by gangs of women to rape, then murder men, a male journalist walking in the night wondering if he’ll get home safely – each of these events are shocking and disturbing, especially in the casual way Alderman refers to them, sometimes in passing as if it’s no big deal. The reader is appalled. And then, the reader stops and realises. These are mirror images of what is happening to women on a day to day basis. From female writers writing under male names, to the situation in Saudi Arabia, Female Genital Mutilation…I could go on but you get the picture. Alderman paints a terrifying dystopia. Read about it, be appalled for the men living in that fictional world then put down your book, and take a look around our one.

“The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent… But we don’t have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we’ve based our ideas on.” 

Girl Up by Laura Bates

As a feminist, I’ve never felt the need to read feminist theory. I didn’t think that I needed persuading to be a feminist. Now I realise reading this sort of writing isn’t just about being persuaded, it’s about awareness and arming yourself with facts.  Girl Up has taught me things that I needed to know right now, and certainly needed to know when I was a teenager.

I never read Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates’ first book, but I took great interest in The Everyday Sexism Project , both online (http://everydaysexism.com/) and on twitter (@Everydaysexism). I listened to Laura’s Tedx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhjsRjC6B8U). Laura is a great role model and really inspirational. I only realised that she was coming out with another book, Girl Up, when I saw a talk and book signing advertised at my local Waterstones.

I really enjoyed watching Laura speak. She’s not presidential or authoritative in tone the way a teacher might be; she’s just natural. You could see that she was a little nervous as she took to the stage, but that was charming. It is her relatability that makes her such a great ambassador for the Everyday Sexism project. Laura isn’t preachy at all, all she does is, without being patronising, guide the listener or reader to remember that life, and feminism, is really all about choice. As long as the choice is something that you want and are comfortable with, then it’s ok. That sounds simple, and I always thought that I knew it too, but Girl Up really enlightened me to the times where actually, a choice maybe wasn’t mine but was foisted on me by media or society’s idea of the ideal woman.

The other great thing about Laura is the passionate way in which she speaks and writes. There was a point in the talk, and many points in the book, where Laura reels off a long list of statistics to illustrate why gender inequality is still very much present in the UK. Statistics, long lists of them, are often dull. Not in this case. Laura speaks with such passion, and writes with such frank honesty, that you can feel the tension building as you read the reel of stats…

“The way that ‘he’ is the automatic default for a person. That fact that insults, from cunt to motherfucker to bastard to pussy, are all, at their root, derogatory towards women. The fact that only seven FTSE 100 companies have female bosses. That women only write one fifth of front page newspaper articles. That they’re 50 per cent of chemistry undergraduates but only 6 per cent of professors. That 400,000 women are sexually assaulted in England and Wales every year, and 85,000 raped.”

…until you just want throw the book down, run to the nearest rooftop and scream at the top of your voice at the unfairness of it all. This is exactly the reaction that feminist writing should elicit. We all need this wake up call.

Girl Up is probably aimed at the younger market, and the writing often directly addresses teenagers. Please don’t let that put you off. I learnt so much. Laura covers off a variety of topics, from social media and body image, to consent and sexual health, and how to own the word feminism.

I really hope teenage girls can get their hands on this book. I think it would be a great manual to dip in and out of and remind anyone suffering from sexism, or perhaps feeling attacked for speaking out about it, that they are not alone. That’s exactly what listening to Laura speak at my local Waterstones (coincidentally one of my ‘happy’ places) did; it made me realise that I’m not alone.

My worry is that teenagers won’t be able to access this book. The book is fierce and direct and I can see that high schools in the UK might ban it from their libraries. For one, they may consider that some of the topics are too mature for teens or that the dancing vagina cartoons are inappropriate. (Yes, dancing vaginas! The idea behind it is that there is penis graffiti everywhere; on walls, school desks, public toilets! So let’s raise awareness of what a vagina looks like and balance this out a bit!) But this is a book to give to your children, whatever their gender identity.  These are ideas and thoughts to be discussed, explored and broadcasted. There is actually nothing particularly revolutionary in this book, this isn’t a new type of theory. It’s feminism for beginners and it’s a great place to start.