Books

book review

A shift in the balance of power

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One of the hallmarks of great speculative fiction is how keenly it compels us to apply the rules of its universe to our own, forcing a second look at what has been long relegated to the background.

In Naomi Alderman’s explosive new novel, “The Power,” girls across the world suddenly acquire the power to conduct electricity. Forget about needing a torch at night, these girls and young women — and eventually many women — forge lightning.

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“There’s a crackling flash,” one of them feels as it happens the first time, “and a sound like a paper snapper. She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm and a bit like burning hair. The taste welling under tongue is of bitter oranges.” And then pow.

How hard it was to read this book in our era, when the world’s most powerful man has openly bragged about sexually assaulting women, not to imagine such sparks being used today.

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A man corners a woman on a dark street? Zap. An angry husband closes his fist? Zap. A boss corners an underling? Zap.

Alderman seems to sense such thoughts hovering and gives the reader a satisfying run of overdue justice. In the first 100 pages of “The Power,” women with the Power tear down repressive governments, force sex traffickers in Moldova to plead for their lives, and make men everywhere physically afraid of women, upending one of the givens around which society has evolved.

This revolution in gender norms unfolds in the background as Alderman shuttles rapidly through the lives of the main characters. All but one of the three women discovers the Power early, it arrives simultaneous to their own sexuality, and they seize its protective force.

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A biracial foster teenager named Allie electrocutes her abusive foster father and goes on the run. Roxy, the daughter of a London gangster, avenges her mother’s violent death, her path later merging with Allie’s.

Margot, the mayor of an American town, suddenly realizes she never has to be shouted down again.

On top of this Alderman flings a free radical into her fictive universe — Tunde, a young Nigerian man who grabs a camera phone and begins making money by filming girls and women putting their Power to use.

“The Power,” the first sci-fi book to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, was published in 2016, so it is not a response to our present political realities. In fact, Alderman has written a far more durable novel than that. After 100 pages of well-conducted revenge plots, she begins to chart her metaphor’s deeper ramifications. What happens, this novel asks, to women who possess what is perceived to be unnatural power? And is power by nature destructive?

Few writers are better suited to tell such a story. Born in London and educated in philosophy and religion at Oxford, Alderman made her literary debut a decade ago with “Disobedience,” a brisk and often very funny novel about a rabbi’s lesbian daughter, who returns to London from New York and sees her community anew. In the course of writing this Orange Prize-winning work Alderman, who was raised Orthodox Jewish, stopped practicing. She is also the author of two other novels. One of them, “The Liars Gospel,’’ posited Jesus as a failed preacher. In 2015, she won a year long mentorship with Margaret Atwood.

Alderman clearly made the most of that time. If her first novels were wildly imagined, enjoyable, but occasionally opaque where lucidity was required, ”The Power” is at once as streamlined as a 90-minute action film and as weirdly resonate as one of Atwood’s own early fictions. Each chapter counts us down from 10 years to a global apocalypse. The story is presented as the manuscript of a historical novel some thousands of years from the events it describes.

Jumping from one character to the next, writing in a propulsive unfussy style, Alderman has conducted a brilliant thought experiment in the nature of power itself. Over the course of the novel Allie refashions herself as Eve, using the Internet to attract followers and the mystique of a kind of miracle. Sensing her visibility could have lasting effect, she begins to catchecize rules, essentially enshrining what will be a new form of domination. Margot is at first alarmed by her power, and then begins to use it for nefarious purposes.

It would be too easy for power to corrupt all her characters. It is not a plot spoiler to say that doesn’t happen in “The Power.” Alderman is after something far more interesting. Turning the world inside out, she reveals how one of the greatest hallmarks of power is the chance to create a mythology around how that power was used. In that sense, “The Power” is a testament to its own force — it begins and ends in the voice of the author herself — as if to say, lightning would be nice, but for now — and here — there’s the pen. It can do a lot.

THE POWER

By Naomi Alderman

Little, Brown, 386 pp., $26

John Freeman is editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, the latest issue of which is themed to The Future of New Writing.
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