Review: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

I love being able to easily explain the idea of a book, especially when I want to pass on the recommendation. ‘Summing up’ is difficult – it’s one of the things I find trickiest about writing reviews, trying to succinctly convey a broad sense of theme, tone and plot. The Power is easy to describe. My problem might actually be to stop talking about it.

This novel explores a scenario in which gender power dynamics are, in one major change, completely shifted. Young girls across the world start developing the an electrostatic power – the power to electrocute at will, to tickle, maim or kill at the flick of their fingers. We follow a tight group of characters who help us chart a slowly changing world.

I first dipped a toe into The Power months ago. When I first signed up to Audible it was the first thing I downloaded before realising I don’t get along with new-to-me fiction as an audiobook experience. Great as audiobooks are, they work better with nonfiction for me. However, I was enthralled by the premise of the book, and have had it in mind ever since. When the paperback cover was revealed I decided, pretty as it is, that I wanted the hardback, which is gorgeous. Also with the hardback, you get two covers to enjoy, the dust jacket and the hardcover underneath.

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Even with aesthetic values ignored, I loved this book. I’ve been struggling to get into fiction lately but this was an instant cure. I could not put it down, it was actually impossible. Instead of glancing up every minute or two and checking how many pages I’d made it through, as I have been doing lately, I lost hours without noticing their passing. I was completely immersed in the gently shifted world Alderman creates.

The structure of this novel is also impressive. It opens with a letter from a writer named Neil to a writer named Naomi asking if she would possibly look at his manuscript, and her response, admiring his use of male characters and gangs. These form the frame for a far-future world which has been turned upside down. And then we go back to that world, or ostensibly into Neil’s manuscript, complete with the occasional illustration of archaeological artifacts from various eras, showing use and representation of the electrostatic power throughout history.

The main story is then structured into chunks, headed ‘9 years to go‘, ‘8 years to go‘ and so on, until we get to ‘Can’t be more than 7 months left‘ and ‘Here it comes‘ – which I loved. Sectioning a book up like this can sometimes make it feel long (as I felt about Here I Am, although that is also just… long) but The Power moves along at a thundering pace, always with the lingering tension of what it is we are heading towards.  I did occasionally wonder about the gaps between sections, as events sometimes seemed more continuous than separations by time indicated, but in general I felt this worked really well.

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In any case, the effect of the sections for me was of ratcheting tension, until from about page 200, I didn’t put the book down. I sat up until 2am, which I last did while reading Crown of Midnight by Sarah J Maas about 11 months ago. It’s not something I do very often any more – perhaps partly because I will feel the effects of not sleeping more now than when I was a teenager, but still. After ages struggling to get sufficiently invested in a book to keep myself reading at all, I found myself clinging to this one for dear life.

The novel follows four main characters, with a few others’ perspectives added in at key moments. They all go through significant changes across the nine years of the story. Importantly to me, I can’t figure out how I feel about them. My responses to their actions, motives, and intentions are tangled – they all felt very real to me, in the convoluted way of actual human beings. There were moments where I was rooting for and against all of them, where I was on their side and then suddenly I was on nobody’s side. The complexity at the heart of that made for a set of incredibly compelling characters.

One thing which surprised me is that while I wouldn’t say it was gory, this book is violent. A lot of grim violence goes on which is sexual or involves children and young people.On that basis I would advise not picking it up while feeling at all faint-hearted – the themes and the content are intense, and while it’s all bound up in a tightly-wound plot it was hard to read at times. Gendered violence is a horribly difficult topic to broach with sensitivity, and the lens which The Power offers challenges and subverts usual scenarios, making it incredibly interesting in this book. It is narratively necessary and handled with great care, but still – I think it’s worth the warning. In fairness to the publishers, the quote chosen to go on the inside front flap of the jacket gives an indication of this.

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I’ve talked before on this blog, possibly too much, about how cross I get about inaccurate blurbs (some examples). But this book is fantastically blurbed, and the accolade on the front from Margaret Atwood is just perfect: Electrifying! Shocking! Will knock your socks off! Then you’ll think twice, about everything. Well, precisely. That’s how I felt. As I said at the beginning, this is an easy book to describe as a concept, but for me the real strength of it is that the excitement I felt when I read that was completely borne out by the novel as a whole. I had high expectations for this and they were absolutely met.

Honestly, I would recommend The Power to most readers. For me this was a book which ticked almost every box of what I look for – it’s incredibly well written, imaginative and original, has interesting and complex characters and a muscular but subtly intricate plot. There are many elements coming together here – politics and personal relationships, violence and love – and a lot of incredibly interesting themes. I found it completely entrancing. The only downside is that I’ve now got such a book hangover I’m half expecting another reading slump.

Also – this review is my 201st post on this blog! I love being in the habit of blogging regularly, although it might not seem that way when I miss posts. Still, it’s a nice little milestone to reach. Happy 200 posts to me!

Book Only

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