THE POWER by Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown and Co. 2017
Well, that was… anticlimactic.
I’m sure there isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said about The Power, as I’m rather late to the party with this one: it’s set in a dystopian future where suddenly girls have developed the ability to generate electric shocks from their fingertips. The novel mainly follows four characters: the feisty British girl Roxy, the American politician Margot, the Nigerian journalist Tunde, and the teenager Allie who escapes from her abusive foster parents and turns to a self-made religion.
So, it’s undoubtedly a great premise, but problem #1: I was bored to death by each one of these characters, and I was also frustrated by the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. The entire book is narrated in a third-person omniscient POV, but is broken up into chapters whose headings are one of the four characters’ names. But, the head-hopping always felt arbitrary; for example we’d have a chapter called ‘Roxy,’ where the focus is actually on Allie, and it was all a bit ironic given the fact that everyone in this story just blurred together anyway. I do not need to personally care about the characters to enjoy a book, but I do need there to be a certain level of intrigue, a certain understanding of why this person’s story in particular is worth telling, and I just didn’t get that from any of the four protagonists here.
But, my bigger issue with The Power was the distinct lack of narrative. You’d think, with the amount of literary fiction I read, that I wouldn’t need a clear-cut plot to keep me engaged, but I’m learning that with SFF, a good idea alone isn’t nearly enough to sustain my interest. I can’t help it – I want a good story. And there just wasn’t one to be found in these pages. The narrative felt scattered and uneven, potentially interesting plot threads were underdeveloped, and the pacing was either rushed or stilted. Each chapter would read as a solitary vignette before we skipped ahead another year and the characters would be doing something else entirely, and while the sections themselves were counting down to some big event – ‘9 years to go,’ ‘8 years to go,’ the section headings would read – this didn’t provide enough tension or intrigue to counteract the boredom that mainly characterized my reading experience. I wasn’t wowed by the ending, either. I did think the novel’s framing device was effective, if a bit heavy-handed, but I put this down feeling nothing but relief to finally be done with it.
And I mean, it’s undeniable that the premise is brilliant and that certain themes in this book are fascinating. As others have observed, this is less a book about gender than it is about power; gender may be the vehicle that Alderman chooses to use, but it’s less a ‘feminist dystopia’ than a relentlessly dark fantasy that interrogates humanity’s innate blood-lust. But the fact remains that this was just so, so much better in concept than in execution. I thought Alderman’s writing was simplistic and downright lifeless, which is also how I felt about her Jewish lesbian romance Disobedience, another book that fell short of its potential for me. I was hoping that my experience with this one would be different as it’s a completely different genre, but I think I should just accept that I don’t get on with Alderman’s writing.
You can pick up a copy of The Power here on Book Depository.