Excitement about Naomi Alderman's dystopian novel "The Power" has been arcing across the Atlantic since it won the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction earlier this year in England. Now, finally, Americans can feel the jolt of this extraordinary book for themselves. Alderman has written our era's "Handmaid's Tale," and, like Margaret Atwood's classic, "The Power" is one of those essential feminist works that terrifies and illuminates, enrages and encourages.
Alderman’s premise is simple; her execution endlessly inventive: Teenage girls everywhere suddenly discover that their bodies can produce a deadly electrical charge.
The science is unsettled, but not entirely fantastical. After all, electric eels can generate a jolt, why not humans? Alderman describes "a strip of striated muscle across the girls' collarbones which they name the organ of electricity, or the skein for its twisted strands." Perhaps environmental pollution has triggered this bioelectrogenetic organ in girls, or maybe it's a physiological ability reasserting itself after millennia of latency. But whatever the cause, the capacity of women to shock and awe quickly disrupts the structure of civilization. Suddenly, young men have to be careful. "Already," Alderman writes, "there are parents telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far."
Alderman’s greatest feat is keeping this premise from settling toward anything obvious as she considers how the world would adjust if women held the balance of energy and could discharge it at will. What if every interaction was predicated on female supremacy? What if men had to worry about being outshined, overpowered, raped? For Alderman, this isn’t just a matter of putting women in all the traditionally male roles. The reversal she imagines is nothing so neat.
The whole novel is powered by an alternating current of horror and wit. (Alderman's skill is delightfully broad: She's one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists and co-creator of the popular "Zombies, Run!" fitness game.) The narrative moves from an American girl's bedroom to a British gang's hangout, to a European forest and beyond, tracing the way this new power surges through families and governments, singeing male pride, inflaming chauvinism and burning the patriarchy to a crisp.
That globe-spanning ambition could easily have dissipated the novel’s focus, but Alderman keeps her story grounded in the lives of four characters who are usually sympathetic, sometimes reprehensible:
● The daughter of a London crime boss discovers she has an extraordinarily potent charge.
● An ambitious U.S. politician struggles to manage her power and win over a skittish electorate.
● An abused foster child feels inspired to be the Goddess’s voice on Earth.
● A young Nigerian dedicates his life to reporting on the world’s gender revolutions.
Chapter by chapter, Alderman rotates among these characters, following their adventures through societies in radical transformation. In India, Saudi Arabia and Moldova, women riot with lightning shooting out of their hands, and men counterattack with bullets and bombs. In liberal Western countries, the transition is more measured; women are counseled to control their power and channel it in positive ways. Schools teach classes in abstinence: “Just Don’t Do It.”
This book sparks with such electric satire that you should read it wearing insulated gloves. Sometimes, it’s small, like Alderman’s portrayal of a newscast hosted by a serious woman and her good-looking male sidekick. But other sections will raise the hair on your arms, like the descriptions of war crimes committed by roving bands of blood-lusting women.
Indeed, this is no "Herland," that classic feminist utopia from 1915 in which Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes a matriarchy of peace and wisdom. And it's certainly no "Sleeping Beauties," the bestseller by Stephen King and Owen King that imagines women transported to a parallel realm of feminine wisdom. No, in the female-ascendent world of "The Power," crime and brutality persist and mutate as half the human race panics that its long realm of domination is over, while the other half wonders how to exercise its newfound force.
The novel’s most fascinating elements concern the reconstruction of sexuality and theology. We see glimpses of Internet porn reconceived when pleasure and pain are spliced in new ways. Even in polite society, courtship is rewired: While making out, a nice young woman hopes she doesn’t lose control and zap her date to death. That new paradigm reverberates all the way down: “Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power.” And archaeological drawings sprinkled through the text add another dimension of grim comedy. One “depicts the ‘curbing’ procedure — also known as male genital mutilation.”
The revolution courses through religious organizations, too, tearing down old icons and erecting fresh ones. The Gospels must be reimagined. A Church founded on the Father and the Son must adapt, willingly or unwillingly, to the new supremacy of the Mother. “She has overturned heaven and earth for us,” a young prophetess announces. Oh, there’ll still be room for men to serve, of course, but only in the subordinate roles appropriate for their lesser agency.
In her acknowledgments, Alderman thanks Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin — possibly the most brilliant triumvirate of grandmothers any novel has ever had. That lineage shows in this endlessly surprising and provocative story that deconstructs not just the obvious expressions of sexism but the internal ribs of power that we have tolerated, honored and romanticized for centuries.
So many books — even great ones — quickly go dim that picking one that might stay lit for decades is a fool’s errand. But in this case, I’m eager to be that fool.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown. 400 pp. $26