Trigger warning: this review includes mention of violence, sexual assault, and homicide.
When I’d previously imagined what the world might look like if it were run by women, it was always a utopia. A prospering egalitarian society with fewer ills and more benefits – where income inequality is considered a disgrace, domestic violence is an issue of the past, and more women hold leadership roles at all levels in our thriving communities.
In the fictional universe of Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, the new order established by women is anything but. As the realisation that women now have the ability to shoot electricity from their bodies sweeps the globe, the world is engulfed in crisis as the patriarchy with all its toxic masculinity is zapped into ruin, one institution at a time.
It’s not a level-headed, organised, and collectively-made decision. This move towards a world order dominated by women (the now stronger sex) erupts in pockets of unrest, as those who have been the most oppressed, enslaved, and abused rage against the men who have so long tormented them. It’s an utterly table-turning, incomprehensible shift as women all across the world indulge in and crave more and more power – a charged, electrifying power that brings out the worst in many: physical violence, sexual assault, torture, genital mutilation, murder and – spoiler alert – the establishment of a matriarchy that over centuries manages to rewrite religion and history and truth altogether. A matriarchy that looks worryingly similar to the patriarchy it has usurped.
There are so many aspects of this Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winning book that are striking. The way it highlights the many ways in which women endure ongoing oppression today. The way it illustrates that no human can endure oppression without their spirit giving way to hurt and anger. The many ways the main characters’ empathy erodes as other values and achievements take priority. The way it proves some people will hurt others because they can.
There’s a scene in this politically-charged work of speculative fiction where a woman in an uprising in Delhi states, “The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami.” She says “You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.” Her wrath, and that of many other women in this novel, is so ugly and true – and it emanates from their collective core with the intent to injure, alongside a desire to make men understand what it’s really like for women to live in a world run by men. That if they had the power to turn things around, they would have done so yesterday.
This book was the most recently selected book of The Lonely Hearts Book Club, a digital trans-regional book club started by a group of friends in 2019. In these times when social distancing is crucial, we encourage Villainesse readers to take part in similar digital initiatives while staying at home. Online communities can help you remain connected to others and simultaneously support the creative arts sector (for example, by purchasing e-books, audio-books, or ordering books by Aotearoa writers from local independent bookstores online) which is experiencing some pretty devastating economic impacts of COVID-19 right now. Stay safe, Aotearoa. Kia kaha.
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