The Power by Naomi Alderman (4 /5)

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This is a challenging read that left me uncertain how I felt about either the questions being posed by the author or the reading experience itself.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

The Power is most obviously a critique of gender essentialism and yet it still deals in a great deal of binary gender absolutes. It has a very wide cast of characters from around the world and yet for a book dealing with the complexities of gender it is incredible heterosexual. It makes some small nods to complexities of biological sex but on a whole fails to understand them. The framing device of letters between two authors discussing the manuscript is very clever and contains some slightly on-the-nose commentary on how some men sometimes speak to younger women colleagues and the biased attitudes of historians extrapolating historical status of women based on limited evidence.

“This is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was.”

I would recommend the Power to most people, with a caveat that there are some uncomfortable scenes of sexual assault, because it does raise interesting intellectual challenges. But at the same it seems underdeveloped. It throws big questions at the reader but then engages with those questions in a somewhat unsatisfactory way. Putting aside shaky biology, it has a generally pessimistic outlook on the human condition and addresses politics in an unrealistic fashion. The characters begin spread out address the world and then meet up in increasingly unlikely circumstances. There are perhaps one or two too many subplots though they do serve to give a breadth to what is happening.

Alderman’s story is one of flipping the gender-based global power-dynamic, by flipping the “physical strength” dynamic, but it does so in such a simplistic way it is difficult to say what overarching point the story is attempting to get across. The idea that women have participated in our world’s oppressive power structures and in the oppression of other women sits there in one of the subplots and yet it is not brought to conclusion. The story seems to end on “women are just as awful as men really” and yet I do not think that was the point the narrative was ultimately trying to get across. There are moments in the framing, the alternated-author Neil attempts to discuss that it is not men or women who are more or less peaceful and kind but rather societies which are kind and less focused on violence will allow gender to stop being a barrier. But this is a small moment almost lost in the wider story and it is just outright stated. Perhaps if this element had been woven into one of the subplots in a more nuanced way it would have had more weight.

“Are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise up to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence?”

I think a lot of the flaws of plot and execution are easy to overlook in the context of challenging subject matter and a sharp wit that Alderman has throughout. As I said, I would recommend it and I would be interested to hear different perspectives on it as I think it is a very complex book with a lot to unpack.

Review also on GoodReads