And so we come to The Power, seemingly after everyone else has. The first science fiction novel to win the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. Labelled ‘a classic of the future’. Selling handsomely and doing very well for itself, thank you very much. Feted by Margaret Atwoood, among others (and not just feted if Alderman’s afterword is anything to go by – Atwood “believed in the book when it was barely a glimmer”, a spark, if you will). It’s ascent to the publishing stratosphere seems to be matched by the return of Atwood’s own Handmaid’s Tale, itself given a push thanks to the excellent Elizabeth Moss- starring miniseries. Sometimes the time is right for a particular tale and as Flannery O’Connor once demonstrated, things that rise do have a habit of converging.
What we have here is one of those books about a global situation told through the prism of different characters, who themselves also converge in unlikely ways. In that respect it forms part of a loose group alongside the likes of The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett, The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus or Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam. (A big list of books by men. Typical, right? But there is something in this: you get to the end of The Power and you’ll see that Alderman is turning something on its head here in a very clever way – so maybe it’s right that this book stands alongside a list of books by men, because that seems to be half the point she’s trying to make.)
So, you might ask if you’ve been living under a rock, what is the power of which the title alludes? Well, the power in question is the power to fire electricity from your fingertips, and it develops, at first, among teenage girls – but then teenage girls seem to be able to switch on the power in other women, their mothers for example. The root of the power is in a muscle known as the skein – and there are rumbles in the book that it has always been there, that it has lain latent, that ancient stories could in fact refer to the skein being used by ancient sorts. We follow the development of the action via Roxy (daughter of a sarf London criminal family), Tunde (Nigerian reporter sort), Margot (American Mayor with growing political aspirations) and her daughter Jos (a decent sort with intermittent powers to the chagrin of those around her) and Allie (an abused runaway who finds her calling in a convent and comes to assume the position of religious figurehead).
Alderman’s great skill is in mixing up a tangle of thriller narratives (such that the book whips along at a cracking pace, her characters in and out of minor and major perils) with something bigger, something that assumes both commentary and philosophy. Undoubtedly there have been other books recently that explore feminism through dystopia (The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman springs to mind) – but Alderman is in a class all of her own. Prefacing the book with a written correspondence between herself and a man called Neil Adam Armon (who is in fact the author of The Power – A historical novel), she manages to twist the twist still further when you arrive at the close of the book. All of which leaves you finishing the book feeling the zesty confidence of a joke well told.
Any Cop?: We agree with all of the superlatives. This is a book you should’ve already read.