Ahoy there me mateys! Blustery winds and crazy seas are still severely limiting the time I have to read. So here be a Tidings post with a twist! The First Mate has been reading like a fiend. I
ordered asked him to write a review of something he recently read because I be going through withdraw and NEED to hear about books. At the end of his review I will decide whether the book is kept in the hold for me future reading pleasure or be keelhauled into the watery depths. Hope ye enjoy!
From the First Mate:
One of my least favorite tropes is the idea that if there were a way
to remove someone’s fear (drug, surgery, genetic mutation, magic, etc)
that person would turn into a self-destructive idiot. That it wasn’t
rational knowledge of consequences that previously prevented them from
continuously hurting themselves but instead it was the protective
cocoon of fear. I don’t think I’m alone in claiming that it’s not
fear that stops me from running through traffic, it’s knowledge of the
consequences (both for myself and others). The Power examines
a similar trope: that everyone desperately wants to hurt other people
and to give anyone physical power over another is to give license to
Much like it’s obvious inspiration, Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale, or Justin Cronin’s The Passage, The
Power is presented as an examination from the future of the fall
of our current society. What we get is a frame story in which the
narrative is a fictionalized account of the events that led up to the
Cataclysm which destroyed our society five thousand years earlier.
The fictionalized narrative is written by a male academic, Neil, in
the future matriarchal society that grew out of the fall of the old
society. While I can take some guesses why Alderman decided to use
the frame (specifically as it relates to historic erasure), I don’t
think the story was well served by it.
The central narrative of The Power is that teenage girls
spontaneously acquire the power to project electricity through their
hands in a frequency that specifically causes pain (though some can
cause physical damage as well). We learn that there’s a biological
source for this power, that there’s enormous variation in power and
control amongst women, and that older women can have their power
“turned on” by young women. We follow Allie as she uses her power to
form a cult around herself as Mother Eve. We follow Roxy as she
navigates from a gangland environment to being a part time enforcer
for Allie’s cult and a big player in her father’s mafia empire. We
follow Margot, an American mayor who uses a combination of the Power
and political power to become more powerful, and her daughter,
Jocelyn, whose power is inconsistent and troublesome. We follow
Tunde, a Nigerian reporter, as he happens to be present for various
revolutions and gets abused. And we follow Tatiana as she becomes
president of Bessapara (nee Moldova) and kinda sorta becomes a modern
Countess Elizabeth Báthory.
Told from a shifting third person limited perspective, the narrative
is divided fairly equally between Allie, Roxy, Margot, and Tunde.
Jocelyn and Tatiana get far less time, but their sections are
particularly sharp. Aside from Jocelyn and Tunde, all of the other
characters often express a desire to physically hurt other people
(both men and women). The characters are presented as being full of
violent rage; sometimes we are given reasons for why this rage is
present, sometimes not. Roxy and Tatiana both are presented as having
been raised in a culture of violence and are only doing what comes
And then there’s the Voice. Allie is directed (helped? advised?)
throughout most of the narrative by a Voice that only she can hear.
The Voice seems to indicate that it has knowledge of the past and
future and knows the path that Allie should follow to make a most
equitable world. Given Allie’s transition to being the religious icon
Mother Eve, it’s unclear throughout most of the narrative if she’s
truly hearing a voice (divine inspiration?) or if it’s a manifestation
of mental illness. Towards the end of the narrative, though, another
character starts to hear the Voice, using the same words that Allie
heard, leading one to assume that the Voice is real. No explanation
is given for the origins or purpose of the Voice.
Which, of course, brings us back to the frame. Because of the frame
story, we know that everything in the narrative is the invention of
Neil. In the correspondence between Neil and Naomi we learn that
pre-Cataclysm historical records are few and far between. The
similarity of elements of Neil’s narrative to present day could make
one believe his narrative is close to the truth of what happened in
the fictional past of the world he lives in. But just take the example
of the biological origin of the Power. The explanation that is given
requires one to have some knowledge of the existence of specific
countries in the early 20th century, wars that those countries fought,
specific weapons that were used in those wars, and the casual way
chemicals might have been disposed of by those countries in that era.
Neil wrote his explanation for the origin of the Power using fewer
historical sources than we currently have for the Early Bronze Age.
He made it up.
And so what? Our fictional writer made the whole thing up, so what? If
he made it up, we have to then explain why he chose to include the
elements that are present. Fiction is invention; what is present
exists for a purpose. The world in which Neil is writing is one that
has been matriarchally dominated for five thousand years. That is
the context from which his narrative springs. Why then the Voice?
Why the violent rage of the pre-Cataclysm women? Why even present a
world like our own instead of something very different? Surely the
invention of a historical past should be more informed by Neil’s
present than the world in which we currently live.
Take the frame away and the narrative becomes “this is a possibility
of what happens when women are given the power to physically fight
back.” With the frame the narrative has to be evaluated through the
lens of why a male in a woman dominated society is telling this story
in this way. We get some of his goals in the correspondence that
bookend the narrative, but the frame just felt very muddled. It
almost feels like the frame only exists because The Handmaid’s
Tale used one. It made evaluating the novel exceedingly
I very much wanted to like the book. The writing is very compelling
at times. The sections of the narrative that dealt with revenge
against one’s oppressors definitely had the ring of truth about them.
And, as much as I truly believe most people don’t have violent rage
continually in them, I know that a percentage of people who are given
physical power over others use that power for abuse. The presence of
a magic ability to shoot electricity from one’s fingers would
certainly be abused and there would be someone like Tatiana. Maybe
I’m just naive in thinking that most people given such power wouldn’t
lose their minds.
Maybe fear really is the only thing preventing people from running
headlong into traffic.
Recommended for Atwood fans and readers who find value in interesting
works even if they don’t fully deliver on their premise. Avoid if
graphic depictions of rape, violence, and physical abuse are hard no’s
(there’s a bunch here).
Yer Captain’s Verdict:
KEELHAUL! Arrrr! I have picked up and put down this book so many times because the premise appeals to me. I am glad the First Mate read this one cause now I don’t have to. The execution and unanswered questions would just make me angry. Bah.
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who lounges around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.
This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British writer, is not only a gripping story of how the world would change if power was in the hands of women but also exposes, with breath-taking daring, our contemporary world.
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