2017 Women's Prize for Fiction Winner
(previously known as the Orange Prize for fiction)
in a nutshell What would happen if a a new group of muscles, a collarbone skein, were to awaken a new, mysterious, fearsome power in women and women only? How would people - women, men, politicians, journalists - react? Would the world be changed forever? And what if that had already happened? In the world of the future, where the mention of male soldiers cannot but awaken racy fantasies, obscure historian Neil Adam Armon decides to chart the advent of the new world order in historical novel "The Power", which he sends for feedback to former lover and famous writer Naomi. This novel-within-the-novel is a choral narrative that follows a set of characters throughout the ten years preceding the birth of the new social order, showing how their lives get intertwined by the power and the struggle for it, to both their success and demise.
why? A gripping, thought-provoking yet easy read, oddly moving at times.
This thing has broken out across the world and no one knows what the fuck is going on.
To start with, there were confident faces on the TV, spokespeople for the CDC saying it was a virus, not very severe, most of the people recovered fine, and it just looked like young girls were electrocuting people with their hands. We all know that's impossible, right, that's crazy - the news anchors laughed so hard they cracked their makeup.
I will begin by saying that I truly found this novel a very enjoyable and compelling read, an equally good companion tucked in bed at night and on a busy train ride in the middle of the day. It was a refreshing change for me, since I read it more for the story and the thinking it generated than for the beauty of the writing - meaning I could get rid of my perpetual pencil at or in hand, which can be fatiguing.
One element that engaged my attention from the start was the focus on different characters. Recently I have become particularly appreciative of the choral or mosaic novel, because I simply find it captivating (here's my review of another choral novel). I found the characters believable for the most part, and I cared about what would become of them, which is always a nice feeling for the (ever so slightly) romantic reader. My least favourite was probably Mother Eve aka Allie, a girl with a troubled past who turns into a lay social media prophet. She interprets the power as a gift bestowed to all women regardless of their faith by the Mother, a non confessional female version similar to the God of the Old Testament. Towards the end it is hinted that she might be communicating with the devil, while earlier she seemed simply benignly psychotic or schizophrenic if one stopped to think about it, given the many dialogues she has with a mysterious voice that guides her to success. I found the religious overtones irritating, yet logical. New power structures require a new religio, a new worldview that fits the bill.
Going back to my nutshell-review, I said that I found the novel oddly moving at times. I said 'oddly', because the novel abounds in episodes of social unrest leading to violence if not pure cruelty (culminating in male rape and torture), and it is indeed some of those passages that I found surprisingly moving. Those that brought an uncharacteristic tear to my eye were group scenes describing women repeatedly forced into subjugation by regimes in Eastern Europe and Saudi Arabia unite and fight back. Women who were systematically turned into nothing now all of a sudden becoming everything - an old bent down Ethiopian woman, Moldovan women kept at sex toys in filthy basements. If they seem caricature you only have to check the news even closer to home to see that oppression of this kind still exists. Unfortunately, it is as women and not as human beings that they surge and rebel, and that in itself is already an abuse of power.
Cutting to the chase then, the real subject of the novel - the "Power" - is not so much the firelight power that awakens in women and that they can in turn awaken in each other, but rather the more subtle, more pervasive power of gender inequality and bias, as well as the strength - be it physical or mental - that determines who controls who. The novel is very effective in showing the role of the press, especially social media, talk shows and online public forums as catalysts for social unrest as well as the place where opinions are shaped and political action begins, on both sides of the barricade, regardless of what politicians in their ivory towers decree. For example, there is an entire section in the novel presented as a public group chat by men, the new social victims, which functions as a prescient herald of what is to come, overflowing as it is with hatred for all women and Mother Eve in particular. As an avid albeit guilty-feeling reader of comments on social media posts, I found this section in all its vulgarity particularly spot on. I truly believe reading comments on contentious Facebook posts is my guilty pleasure, because they reveal the underside of political correctness, they convey the rawest, basest truth, often in the crudest of terms, and that is a spectacle my hidden Peeping Tom cannot resist. The passage in the novel does not disappoint in this respect.
What the novel goes on to brilliantly portray is that the new kind of weapon, available solely to women, acts as a trigger that activates a series of pulls and levers that could not be stopped if one tried. Indeed, given the intrinsically violent beginning - repeated suffering and oppression of one sex - the new power cannot but tip the scales and almost inevitably lead to a violent end, the reversed but equally oppressive and destructive rule of the female sex. Obviously such a view is debatable, and I think it would make for an interesting discussion. Would the status quo hold if such a sudden change happened, if all women in all the corners of the world awoke one day and found themselves grown nearly unstoppable overnight? (I think this would be excellent fuel for a Christmas family brawl, if anyone needed an excuse to break the monotony of upcoming happy celebrations and familial love.)
When I finally got to the closing section of the novel, the second longer email exchange between Neil and Naomi, I had to ask myself whether the novel without this frame would have made sense, whether in fact it might have been better, less didactic, less obvious in its intent to challenge our view of the sexes. Difficult to know. The frame definitely adds an important layer, because it makes it clear that negotiations about gender power inevitably rest on cultural views accumulated through millennia of imagery and stories that portray men and women in a certain way, be they religious or lay texts. The frame may well be too doggedly set to role reverse our perspectives - a group of male soldiers is cheap porn, Neil deplores the practice of aborting male babies and curbing their genitalia, the fictional Naomi's assistant is obviously a "he" - but perhaps this blunt approach is needed to ensure that centuries of female oppression may not be forgotten, and that a number of still existing inequalities may gain momentum to be redressed. The crowning glory of this section is Naomi's tentative suggestion that Neil adopt a female pseudonym in order to give his work more credibility - which makes us question whether perhaps the novel should bear Neil's authorship, whether in general there might be a man behind a woman's signature, almost the unthinkable for any student of literature.
Overall, I have to say, even though I found the last section provocative to the point of cliché I cannot help but get a kick out of those gender role reversal scenes when I imagine one of the people who refuse to see the problem of equality (including but not limited to men) reading them and realising in a flash, truly picturing and feeling in their bones, perhaps for the first time, perhaps for a split second only, the weight women have carried for centuries at least - seeing their faces as the penny drops. If this novel manages to work this magic even on one single person this would make it for me an unquestionable success. What would make it a masterpiece is if it led that same person to the conclusion that it is the structures of power as well as the gender narratives and expectations that bridle us that need to change, rather than focusing on which sex has more power, if we want to build a fairer society that revels in beauty (which I believe we have started to do, actually).
* One note about the Italian translation, which is available here: the publishing house has released it as Ragazze elettriche ("Electric Girls"), which in my opinion is not only an immense and unnecessary giveaway, but also a narrowing down of the scope of the original title, which maintains a fruitful ambiguity. I say ambiguity firstly because the title prompts a series of questions (what is power? which power? whose power?), and secondly because the very power that is awakened in women is indeed presented as electric in nature but not limited to electricity, as this version of the title suggests. Lastly, it is not only girls but women too who become "electrified".
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