On My Bookshelf – The Power

This is a little late, but I’ve been busy – between settling into Kampala and preparing myself for this semester’s never-ending flow of assignments, there hasn’t been too much time for light reading. But I finished The Power, my female-authored pick for January, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Sometimes, things just stick to you, and you find your mind consistently wandering back to them, applying their lessons or ruminating on their messages. That’s what Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was for me – fitting that it’s another book about the potential end results of women’s oppression. 2017 has been called “The Year of Female Rage,” and 2018 might take that title to its extremes – with the continuing reign of Donald Trump, the take-down of Larry Nassar, and these female-friendly chip bags, here’s hoping.

The Power starts with a compelling, if fantastical, idea: what if girls woke up one day with the ability to electrocute men with a single touch? What would a matriarchal planet look like, and how much devastation would be required to secure it? The Power is framed as a history text, written many years in the future when memories of a male-dominated world have faded into myth. It doesn’t play into stereotypes of women as a naturally more peaceful gender – we take our revenge, and, while satisfying, the results are clearly ethically questionable. Naomi Alderman excels at analyzing the consequences of each seemingly-logical action, with the results devolving into irrationality and chaos: brothers kill sisters to steal their power, religious movements arise to cope with the new world order, and men afraid to walk alone at night band together in Men’s Rights movements intent on taking back what has always belonged to them. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes: to those on top, equality feels like oppression.

Some of Alderman’s plot devices are definitely questionable. One character has something speaking in her head – god? a conscience? or is she actually crazy? – which is never explained. More problematic is the scene in which newly-powerful Arab women throw off their headscarves and dance joyously through the streets. All cultures are deeply internalized by their practitioners, and with the recent clap-back against the characterization of headscarves as intrinsically oppressive, I found this passage somewhat simplistic. Norms and ideas are perpetuated in all forms of media, so Western authors in particular have to be careful not to let lazy or stereotypical depictions of other cultures go unchecked.

It’s the epilogue, however, which cements The Power as a truly insightful work. Presented as a work of history, the novel begins and ends with correspondence between its male author and his female mentor, in which the book is criticized as absurd for portraying men as ever having been in power. The letters serve as a critique of historiography and memory as a whole, which is a pretty Big Idea™ for a pop-feminist novel. If my review hasn’t convinced you to give The Power a read, let Barack Obama – he named the novel one of his favorites of 2017.

In between classes and visits to NGOs, I’m trying to meet my reading goals for 2018. Stay tuned!

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