REVIEW: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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3/5 stars

“When does power exist? Only in the moment it is exercised. To the woman with a skein, everything looks like a fight.”

Phew. I was exhausted after finishing this book–it really is one of those demanding novels that drains you in the reading. That’s not a bad thing at all when a book is written to be thought-provoking, and The Power is nothing if not an exercise in the synthesis of intellectualism with pure storytelling.

I have decidedly mixed opinions on its success at its mission. On one hand, Alderman’s speculative vision of a world in which the entire gender dichotomy is upended virtually overnight raises tonnes of insights about our world, allowing her to explore the multitude of ways in which women are treated differently for their gender. She almost gleefully illustrates the absurdity of such ingrained sexism by imagining what it would be like if men were treated that way instead–examples that spring to mind include mothers warning their sons not to go out alone at night and an older female politician unprofessionally ogling a young male reporter. At times, the role reversal becomes heavy-handed, but I can accept a little explicitness on the grounds that The Power aims to send a message.

On the other hand, The Power breaks down as a work of fiction. The plot is not captivating, the characters not compelling, enough to justify its status as a full-length novel rather than a short story, a medium for which it might be better suited. The Power naturally is compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter being a major inspiration. The Handmaid’s Tale works as a novel because we are made to care about Offred, because Atwood sells her story convincingly and genuinely. The Power rotates through a tad too many POVs to have anywhere near the same effectiveness, some of which are definitely stronger than others. My favourite by far was Roxy, who ironically was the most morally grounded despite being a London gang kingpin’s daughter (and later achieving such greatness for herself). The scene when Roxy lost her skein is a rare moment of gut-wrenching narrative mastery. If the entire novel focused on her, I reckon it could have been a good deal stronger narratively, as well as hitting on most of the social themes in its current iteration. Roxy is a netizen, after all.

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One thing Alderman did execute better than most novelists I’ve come across is realism in online interactions. There’s a short segment of an Internet forum where the usernames and language were quite on-point, barely distinguishable from what you might find on the more questionable corners of Reddit or 4chan. In that sense, The Power is a truly modern novel, well aware of the times. The lingo might date in a few more years, but such is the price of accuracy to the current date.

Read this book. It’s far from perfect. It raises many more questions than it answers, and if you’re a sucker for a Happily Ever After like I am, you won’t enjoy the (rather inconclusive) conclusion very much. But read it anyways. Read it in spite of its flaws; relish its flaws for reflections of the society in which we live. In that I do think The Power has achieved its goal.

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