The Power by Naomi Alderman

US cover of The Power by Naomi AldermanAn absolutely remarkable thought experiment that is also an engaging, suspenseful novel. The premise is simple: “An environmental build-up of nerve agent…released during the Second World War…changed the human genome.” As a result, all girls have “the power,” the ability to send out an electrical jolt through their fingertips. Adolescents can “wake up” the power in older women. Some have more power (and better control) and some have less, but it’s not going away – which means that the historical gendered imbalance of power has flipped. Suddenly, women are more powerful than men, and in places where women have been most oppressed, “justice is at last being meted out.”

The framing device for this story is a letter from the author, Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman), to Naomi, asking for feedback on his “historical novel.” His novel is set in a time close to our present, but Neil and Naomi’s exchange takes place about five thousand years after the “Cataclysm,” in a future where women have been dominant for five thousand years.

A few characters, some of whose stories intersect, take us through the momentous emergence of the power: Roxy, daughter of a London crime boss; Allie, an orphan suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her foster parents; Tunde, a young male journalist who follows the most explosive events; and Mayor Margaret Cleary and her daughter, Jocelyn. Also throughout are Kristen and Tom, TV news anchors whose gender power balance shifts subtly but definitively throughout the novel.

The Power succeeds marvelously in its aim, and is therefore disheartening: it shows that when the disempowered attain power, they do not necessarily wield it any better than those who were previously in power. (As the voice in Allie’s head tells her, The only way to be safe is to own the place.) The solution, it is implied, is not simply to flip the gendered power imbalance, but to make it so that everyone is equal. And as the voice in Allie’s head also says: You can’t get there from here.

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