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Electric feminist fiction: Efemia Chela reviews Naomi Alderman’s Baileys award-winning The Power

Published in the Sunday Times – 12 February 2017

Naomi Alderman imagines a world in which girl power is actual high-voltage current, writes Efemia Chela

The PowerNaomi Alderman (Viking)
The Power ****

Naomi Alderman’s thriller is a countdown to the creation of a world-wide matriarchy, powered by female electricity. A generation of girls, in a world just like our own, discover that they are born with an electrical “skein” under their skin. With the onset of puberty the skein awakens and their body starts to generate volumes of electricity. They can play games with the arcs of power rushing from their fingers, light cigarettes with it and even unleash enough energy to kill. As more and more girls experiment with the power, they realise they can teach older women how to wake up their own power buried within and turn the world upside down. Especially because in men, the power is absent.

Men begin to fear for their lives and see their formerly entrenched dominance and privilege crumble. They are afraid to walk home alone at night, can no longer rule the playground and lose wars against armies of electrically empowered women. Some retaliate by taking to the internet and planning real-life terror attacks against women on men’s-rights forums.

The narrative is split between four fascinating characters who are key players in what women call “the empowering global sisterhood” but what ever more fearful men feel is a cataclysmic gender endgame. There’s Allie, the foster kid runaway reinventing herself in South Carolina as a religious icon with healing hands and Margot, an ambitious politician with a secret, who manipulates the quickly shifting balance of power in her favour. Tunde is a young Nigerian journalist recording rapidly changing, newly charged societies with some trepidation because he’s a man. Rounding out the main cast is Roxy, the East End gangster’s daughter. She is trying to cash in on the new world order and settle old scores with the intensity of her skein, which can light up the sea.

These four vastly different lives intersect fully where the crackling tension reaches its climax in the contested state of Bessepara in Eastern Europe. In this fledgling revolutionary state, the world is watching to see how far the power can be pushed and whether men are still viewed as equal citizens. Alderman keeps us on tenterhooks waiting to see which alliances will hold firm, who will survive and at what cost.

The Power’s unique premise and easy prose make it a pleasure to read. Alderman probes the psyche of each of her characters deeply, skilfully withholding key facts from the reader to crank up the suspense and heighten the impact of each of the book’s unexpected and sometimes violent turns. This exciting satirical novel is a fresh take on the battle of the sexes, with intriguing sci-fi and radical feminist influences from Ursula K. LeGuin and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Its realism will certainly get you thinking, especially when the similarities between the world on the pages and our current world get too close for comfort.

Follow Efemia Chela @efemiachela

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