“The Power” by Naomi Alderman

Sorry about the lack of a Monday post this week. As I warned, I’m very behind with reviews and haven’t been able to get them up fast enough to fill in all the gaps 😦 This book is one I was given for Christmas — mostly I just review things I have from NetGalley, but none of them come out soon enough, so I’m reviewing this instead. It came out quite recently, which makes me feel better about not staying up to date on things.

It’s not an easy one to review, though, and I find it hard to separate my objective thoughts about whether the book’s any good from my subjective feelings about how I personally responded to it. Which, obviously, is what book reviews are meant to be about, but I think I struggled with this book. I’ve glanced at a couple of other reviews, though, and it looks like a few other people felt the same way. Anyway.


Publication date: October 27th, 2016

This was a very interesting book to read immediately after reading The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read on Sunday, because they’re very similar. That is, the stories they tell are entirely different, and so is the style, but the themes and the way they approach it have a lot in common. Both are presented as “historical” accounts from some point in the future (this one is supposedly five thousand years in the future), and focus on ideas of gender.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, patriarchy has been taken to an extreme and women have been robbed of individuality and so on; in The Power, women have developed what is essentially a magic power and used it to turn society on its head and establish a matriarchal structure which has become so ingrained that the ‘historical’ notes at the end reflect a world that seems to be the complete opposite of ours.

For the most part, this book is very readable and not too much like hard work despite some heavy themes explored, but there are a couple of truly horrifying scenes that I honestly want to bleach from my brain. Alderman amped up the violence to a level that felt overly voyeuristic and indulgent and frankly unnecessary. I’m both sensitive and inured to much violence in book (I have many feelings but I also read a lot of messed up stuff), and I can imagine more sensitive readers might find those scenes even more difficult to stomach.

One involves rape (and while given the power balance in the book it subverts the usual norms by being a woman raping a man, it’s still absolutely awful and traumatic to read) and the other involves somebody getting ripped into pieces; there are a few more violent scenes earlier in the book, and also a couple more rape scenes. Those were likewise upsetting and uncomfortable, but these two scenes stood out to me as being particularly horrific because of how graphic they were. So I found those very upsetting and difficult to stomach.

Some parts of the book are chillingly realistic, particularly the message boards featured at one point, which read like any internet argument I’ve ever come across. There’s also a character who appears briefly who is basically the living embodiment of 4chan and other internet hellholes, and his arguments are distressingly familiar (as is his terminology, though to be spot on he’d need to have used the word “cucks” and he didn’t as far as I can recall).

I found it reasonably easy to follow what was going on, despite shifts of perspective to follow different characters and the unconventional way some parts of the book were presented. I think that’s a good thing, and shows that it’s well written — I hate it when books try to be too clever and it just leaves me confused.

But I’m not sure I know what point Alderman was trying to make. Particularly the exchange of emails at the start and end, intended to portray this as a real historical turning point that led to a matriarchy so complete it’s difficult to imagine a world run by men — they felt a little too hyperbolic and I felt it undermined some of the subtlety of the book as a whole. I guess it’s because they literally turn anthropological sexism on its head just by changing the words and not by changing arguments, which didn’t feel convincing: I’m sure one could come up with an argument for matriarchy that didn’t rely on just reversing conventional sexism and it might hold up to more scrutiny.

I think on the whole, though, the presentation of women in this book is actually quite a pessimistic and negative one. The message SEEMS to be that if women had a physical advantage, like this power, they would become cruel, power-mad, feral creatures who will happily rape, murder and destroy people, apparently just for kicks. Moreover it suggests that the only thing a reversal of power would achieve is a subverted and intensified version of our own society, with the problems amplified but in reverse.

Can it really be called feminist literature if its overwhelming view of women is so bleak and unpleasant? The emails present a world where “a world run by men” is not only unthinkable, but something that the female correspondent thinks would surely be a nicer, gentler place to live because clearly that’s what men, as the weaker sex, are like. The message, then, came across as being that if given power, women would ruin everything and violence would exacerbate rather than be reduced. Which I found hard to swallow, especially as it was a bit hard to tell at times if that was what Alderman was genuinely saying or if I was misunderstanding her.

I don’t think a matriarchy would necessarily be all flowers and sisterhood and free love, but this took it to a very different extreme.

Also, while there were some characters featured who didn’t entirely fit the mould of “female has power, male has not” due to hormone imbalance or whatever, it still felt extremely binary and there was no discussion of how this change would affect trans people. Would a trans woman who had transitioned still get the power? What if she hadn’t had hormone therapy? What about a trans guy — would he be outed by power, if it’s linked to hormones and stuff at birth?

These questions could have been explored and weren’t, and in a book that explored gender so much, it felt like an oversight that Alderman didn’t mention them at all. I’m a little bit fed up of feminist and gender theory stuff getting caught up in biological essentialism and forgetting that hey, trans people exist. (Don’t get me started on the complete non-existence of nb people in books like this.)

A lot of the book was very enjoyable but I think my experience of it was soured by (a) the above trans issue and (b) those two really horrifying scenes I mentioned, which happened quite near the end and left me feeling sick to my stomach. Sure, they were effective, I guess, but I don’t think they needed to be THAT graphic and it’s going to be a long time before I can forget them — I’d really rather not have those images in my head, to be honest. It creates a horrible mental aftertaste, if that’s a thing — if you mention this book to me, at the moment that’s the first thing I remember.

Anyway. An interesting and thought-provoking read but not such a fun one, and I’m not really sure how to rate it. It’s BETTER than many of the books I’ve rated three stars, objectively speaking, in terms of writing quality and structure. But I didn’t enjoy it as much, so it’s getting that rating.

Rating: ***

6 thoughts on ““The Power” by Naomi Alderman

  1. Laura Cooper says:

    Thanks for the review, I had been eyeing up the book. It certainly has an interesting premise, but based on your review it seems it doesn’t go very far with this, it is moving down a few notches on the infinite to-read. It’s fortunate that you read The Handsmaid’s Tale before reading this, Atwood was Alderman’s mentor whilst Alderman was writing the book.


    • Miriam Joy says:

      Yeah, it’s a weird one. I think it’s worth knowing what you’re getting yourself into when you start (since I found some parts of it really difficult to read).


  2. James says:

    If I could offer a male perspective- I found ‘The Power’ very thought provoking and I agree with much of your review. Alderman takes on many themes and the device of inverting experiences that women have endured through the ages makes many think it is just about a battle of the sexes, but it is also a clever examination of the use of power obviously at varying extremes.

    Like the male character in the novel, I found the story fascinating (the shifts in social structures), amusing (the way some men dealt with the loss of status and power) and at times frightening (men being unable to defend themselves against ANY woman and the vulnerability that comes with that). It is incomfortable thinking that a Matriarchy would be as (or more) oppressive than our current world (which in the west at least I think getting a lot closer to equality), but I think Alderman was making a point about human nature – gender does not define using power for good or evil.

    I agree that some of the violence, sexual assault and brutality was a bit much at times and it has made me think twice about a number of things. The TV series might make for uncomfortable viewing, particularly for guys! However, I think it would make a lot of them think about their own inherent power (not as impressive as what women have in the novel!) and how they treat women in their lives.


    • Miriam Joy says:

      Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment! Yes, I agree that the book is extremely thought-provoking, and deals with an important topic with regard to our own society. I think it took the violence too far for my tastes, but I’m fairly sensitive, so I know that impacted on my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I’m very much aware that that’s an issue of personal taste — but then, so are all book reviews. And sometimes taking things to extremes is the best way to make a point.


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