When I went on vacation I didn’t get to review some great reads, so I’m working on catching up. This one was my favorite. Alderman’s novel won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017, but I was a little afraid it wouldn’t live up to the hype.
This book was amazing. It took a fairly simple premise – what if women had a physical power that men didn’t have – and then took it in so many directions and really explored the implications. What I liked most about this book is how it made me look at the world a bit differently, which is why I think everyone should read it.
The book is structured as a historical novel meant to explain the “history” of what happened. We know there is a “Mother Eve” and a “Book of Eve”. Then the book takes us to a point “Ten Years Before” where the first woman – a teen actually — experiences an electrical charge in her hands. From there, this power gradually grows and spreads. The women who have it are shamed and treated like witches or mutants. The medical community treats it as a disease and tries to figure out how to cure it. But it’s also described as an “awakening”, something that can be passed from woman to woman, something that’s been inside all along.
Alderman’s book looks at how women are oppressed by having less physical strength than men. Obviously, there are some women who are physically stronger than some men, but as a society, women are seen as the weaker sex. What if we weren’t?
You might say: but most women aren’t raped or assaulted by men. And also, men can be raped and assaulted by other men. The book raises some really interesting questions about how rape, physical dominance, and power (social, political, and religious) intersect. Are we weaker for being treated like we’re weak? Are we weaker because we can be raped? Alderman explores the flip side of these questions, by exploring the confidence and authority that women gain by having a physical strength that allows them to feel safe at all times.
As someone who’s thought about this issue quite a lot, this book was still an eye-opener. The reality is that women are affected every day by their position of strength relative to men. The good and decent men around us also benefit from their status, and it helps them in a lot of ways that we are seen (and see ourselves) as weak. Alderman has given us an excellent illustration of how privilege works by flipping it on its head (and this applies to other types of privilege as well). Men are our protectors, the people who walk us to our cars at night, who carry heavy things for us, who open doors and offer up their seats. But how do they benefit from that? Would they give it up, given the option? And, what responsibility does the “stronger sex” bear?
Would the world be safer if women were in charge? Would we govern more humanely? The Power is not just about gender, but about power dynamics in general. As in Animal Farm, one of my favorite books, we see that power corrupts when one group dominates others. Here, it’s taken to an extreme (and a disturbing extreme at that) because women aren’t just stronger, they can electrocute with a touch. Whether that corruption is inevitable is just one of the complex questions raised in this book.
Alderman also explores religion and its coercive and corrupting effects. And for those who think that a “strong female character” means physical strength, here is a book that poses new ideas about what it means to be strong.
I do wish, however, that Alderman had focused more on the intersection of race and gender, since any change in the power structure, both locally and internationally, would have to take that into account.
I could go on and on about this book, but I’ve probably told you too much already. For anyone who’s fascinated by The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a must read.