The baby is a year old, and though he is not sleeping through the night, I’m finally starting to feel like my own person again. This littlest one of ours has had the most demanding baby year, or perhaps it has been harder for us all because he has had to slot into the needs of a growing family. In any case, it feels good to be coming out of the zombie nights and to have the energy to read long-form again. I missed it.
Have you spent Christmas reading? Or perhaps followed the Icelandic tradition of giving books to family on Christmas Eve? This custom is a huge part of the festive period, and families spend the night reading. It’s also why the Icelandic publishing industry booms between September and December, known as the Christmas Book Flood: Jolabokaflod.
We’re entering a new phase of reading in our house. My husband started a new job and is tearing through novels faster than me on his commute. He’s never been much of a reader, and I’m thrilled to be able to share this new side of him. Our eldest is 8 and is currently reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and David Walliams stories. Our 5 year old started school in September, and can now read by himself. I love how at this age children are as excited by pictures as by words. His eyes dart across the page consuming bits of information an adult’s eyes might miss. It’s not unusual to walk into his room in the morning to find the contents of his bookshelves all over the floor.
Talking about books is always a pleasure, so I’ve decided to make the Literary Loves series a regular component of this blog. I find it endlessly satisfying figuring out what books mean to different people, how we imbue them with meaning, how they relate our own experiences. The white space between the lines of text can make the reader’s imagination connect the dots in different ways. There’s not one reading, and authorial intention doesn’t always determine where the reader’s mind leaps.
First up is The Power by Naomi Alderman, winner of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which I’ve just finished reading. I love feminist literature. The Power is now sitting proudly alongside its forebears on my bookshelf: next to Margaret Atwood (who encouraged Naomi Alderman to stick with this book), Audrey Lorde, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Radclyffe Hall, Sarah Waters and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The Power is based on the premise that young girls suddenly discover they hold the power to thrill, shock, even kill, others (but men are viewed as the target, mainly because they don’t possess the power themselves, and have therefore become the >weaker< sex). The power can also be awakened in older women, and so ensues the potential for men and women to view each other as enemies, for political and legal backlash, segregation, religious fanaticism, violence and manipulation. The idea itself is not too far-fetched. Electric eels can shock, after all. It’s a clever device, allowing the author to explore the balance of power between the sexes, violence, trust, indeed, a new world order.
The novel draws from other feminist literature in the canon, most notably from Margaret Atwood. It also made me think of the Salem witch trials, and Lady Macbeth, as well as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where a change in the physical/metaphysical environment has a stark impact on how individuals behave, and how they group together for protection and to further their own goals. The threat of the women’s new-found (had it always been there?) power warps the perception of the past and present.
The narrative is woven through multiple perspectives: we have Allie, a runaway; Roxy, the daughter of a mob boss; Margot, a politician; and Tunde, a journalist, the only male point of view. These central figures intersect each other’s narratives, and illustrate how the foundations of religion, economics, politics and communication are being remade in response to the power. The author’s language is deft and urgent, sometimes cutting. It gets under the skin, as do her characters. It surprised me that I identified most with Tunde. Odd, that in a feminist novel, it is the man I identified most with, but perhaps that was the author’s intention, to bind us to the outside. Tunde is a witness to the upheavals, and a brave one at that, and he too is broken and remade by his experiences.
The Power is a fine piece of work: brave, inventive and thought-provoking. You can smell the fear. It repulses and excites. The characters behave in ways that feel truthful. The pictures of artefacts included in the novel create a clever alternate history. Perhaps even more terrifying to me than the displays of cruelty in the novel, were the sections in which we see men discussing conspiracy theories and retaliation in anonymous internet forums, where they speak of coming wars and justify an escalation of violence, a taking-back of control. Though based in science fiction, this story is all too real, too close to the reality we find ourselves in.
Still, I wanted an exploration of how the power impacted intersectionality, how there might be a reordering of class and race should such a power exist. The author alludes to groups of refugees but I wanted more. It is, in any case, a multi-layered achievement that warrants a second reading. I personally didn’t care for the framing device which book-ends the novel, in which a male author (whose name is an anagram of Naomi Alderman’s) fawningly submits a manuscript to an established female writer. It is this submission, a work of historical fiction about of the founding of a matriarchy that is now the norm, which becomes the main text. The framing is clever, no doubt, but it felt heavy-handed to me, and the tone of the letters jarred.
What is more, I wanted to believe a reversal of male dominance could be utopic, that not everyone could be corrupted, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, not more of the same. I wanted a happier ending, as it were. I wanted, even this form of militant feminism, to be an answer, not a threat. But then, Naomi Alderman is wise, if unwilling to give us the satisfaction of a utopia. There can be no utopia without equality, whoever is wearing the boot — or the glove — of power. Where there is a history of powerlessness, won’t there always be revenge if the tables are turned? Can we expect the sinned, to be saints? Whatever the answer, the questions raised will stay with me. The Power is as joyous in its revenge-porn, as it is a warning of one sex dominating the other, even the >fairer< sex.
Feel free to join in the conversation in the comments, I’d love to know what you think. Or just tell me what you’ve been reading. I love Netflix, but let’s do our bit to wrestle some power back from the television gods in favour of the quiet, energising bliss of reading. Until next time.
Nillu Nasser is the author of literary fiction novel All the Tomorrows. Her second book, Hidden Colours, is due to be released in late 2018. For news for forthcoming releases, please sign up for her occasional newsletter here.