book review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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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.

book review: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

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DISOBEDIENCE by Naomi Alderman
★★☆☆☆
Penguin, 2007

For the most part I enjoyed reading Disobedience, but it’s one of those books that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I was having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly was working for me about this, because when I started to pick it apart, I realized there wasn’t a whole lot to praise. It wasn’t the writing, certainly, which I found rather sophomoric (more on that in a minute); it wasn’t the plot, which was quite paint-by-numbers; and it wasn’t the characters, who were pretty flat archetypes and essentially just mouthpieces for Alderman’s ideas, completely with stilted dialogue that doesn’t even begin to resemble how real human beings converse. But it was something, I guess, because it had a very readable quality to it and I certainly wouldn’t dissuade others from checking it out.

I think if I had to choose the one thing that really stood out to me about this novel, it was the setting. It takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community in London, and focuses on the romance between Ronit (the rebellious, wayward daughter of a renowned Rabbi who’s recently died) and Esti (the submissive, conservative housewife who’s miserable from deeply internalizing religious doctrine). While neither of these characters felt as fleshed out as they could be, what did feel very rich and textured for me was each of their relationships with Judaism; this community did feel very real to me and the sermons which began each chapter were an effective tool for immersing the reader in these characters’ ideologies.

I haven’t yet read Alderman’s Women’s Prize-winning novel The Power, which received a lot of critical praise but which is not particularly adored among my circle of reader friends. I still intend to read The Power, but if the writing style is anything like it was in Disobedience, I think I’m beginning to understand the criticism. There were some individual sentences in here which I highlighted because I thought they were striking, but there were even more which caused me to roll my eyes, if only because Alderman has a habit of repeating the same words and phrases and ideas ad nauseum. On a sentence-by-sentence example, let’s take this:

Far away, very very far away, I made a sleek black telephone on a pale wood desk ring.

I thought okay, that’s an interesting way to describe making a phone call. But then Alderman does the exact same thing again:

I dialed the number and, a quarter of the way across the world, I made a British number appear on a black telephone on a blond-wood desk.

This whole book had a circuitous nature to it, where it felt like Alderman was taking the longest possible way to make a simple point. On the more thematic level, we’re frankly bashed over the head with Alderman’s pontifications on man’s capacity for disobedience, and the societal expectation of silencing women. It’s not that I disagree with anything that she’s saying – in fact, several of these points I did find rather stimulating to mull over – but when you use the word ‘silence’ a grand total of sixty-six times in your novel, maybe you should consider that you’re laying it on a bit heavy.

And then there’s the ending – admittedly this critique is tied up inextricably in my personal preferences, but if there’s one kind of ending I cannot stand, especially in literary fiction, it’s when everything is wrapped up neatly in a nice bow; all conflicts resolved and all character arcs completed. I think there’s something so dissatisfying about following characters on a journey through a novel and essentially being told ‘their story ends here, no need to think about this any further, everything’s fine’ at the end. I can’t tell you how much I hate that. Coupled with the downright corny resolution, I did not finish Disobedience on a high.

So, I don’t know. It started around 4 stars for me, dropped to 3 stars somewhere in the middle when the repetition got to be a bit much, and ended up around 2 because of how much I hated the ending. But I didn’t hate this book, I just didn’t think it lived up to its potential. Solidly 2.5 for me – I may reevaluate and change to 3 later.