This year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction is a bloody corker: as soon as I had started The Power by Naomi Alderman I was already recommending it to friends. It is a deeply tantalising and dangerous premise: what if girls ruled the world? Billed by one reviewer as The Handmaid’s Tale for the Gone Girl generation, it feels prescient and timely. It is both horror and fantasy; sci-fi and thriller. It is an alternative future, written as a kind of history from an unspecified point.
It starts in a recognisable place, chapter after chapter in different places around the world with different people: rich kids at a pool in Nigeria, a local American politician, a London girl from a crime family, a foster child with deeply religious parents. But slowly something is changing, something that is thought to be wrong at the time but completely comes into itself. A power comes from the girls: a thrumming of electricity in their bodies that can wound and be weaponised. At first, it is an abhorrence, something to be regulated and controlled but as girls awaken it in their mothers, as each new girl baby is born with it, the world we know completely changes. This turns the known patriarchal power dynamic on its head and it is both illuminating and uncomfortable to see how traditional structures were built entirely on the premise of male physical dominance. So now that women are more physically powerful with this incredible new dangerous energy running through them, the structures of society move to a matriarchy.
Sometimes this book feels like a feminist fantasy. Finally, we don’t have to physically fear for ourselves when we walk down the streets of night. Yes, those creeps touching you in the bar do need to be taught a lesson. It is an indulgence. And it is stunning to watch men flail pointlessly for the power they are losing and think they deserve. But it is also an incredibly involving and believable set up. Any feeling of fiction that comes with the sci-fi setup is quickly forgotten as this new world run by women begins to define itself. We follow the same characters introduced in the opening chapters as they too emerge in this new power structure. The players all feel deeply familiar, albeit to be understood slightly differently in this new context.
This book is a horror too, and for me that comes through most strongly when you see the matriarchy treating men in a structural way the same way the patriarchy currently treats women. It is slow, but unmistakeable: for example little incursions restricting free movement of men move into legislation ‘for their own protection’ allowing access to public spaces only under the immediate supervision of a sister, wife or mother. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing new has been created to build this world: it has come entirely from history, repurposed in minor ways, simply adding to the horror.
It is a bloody gripping book, as it takes you from sci-fi to fantasy thriller to horror. The Power explores an alternate world, utterly believable and terrifying in its realisation. It interrogates so many assumptions we have about gender, power, sex, government and religion through flipping our structures and taking them to an awful, logical conclusion. It is an intelligent, brilliant book.