Naomi Alderman’s sensational third novel The Power from 2017 represents made-for-Hollywood fiction. With the television series adaptation being released 31 March on Amazon, readers will be treated to an on-screen fulfillment of the work. Will the quality of the adaptation’s characters be better than those in the book? Their prospects are dubious, considering its source material: an idea-driven dystopian novel that fries its characters with an over-abundance of imagery and biblical allusion.
The story takes place in the not-so-distant future when adolescent girls discover they have a new power: emitting electric shock from the palm of their hands. The power radiates from the Skein—a strip of volt-generating tissue growing along their collarbones.
In its overall suspenseful readability, the book posits that such a change in biology along gender lines would upend all basic relationships and life on earth as we know it; specifically, that women would come to subjugate men. Executed primarily through motifs and Biblical allusion, this premise provokes readers to ponder gender dynamics and societal fabric. However, in its fidelity to its core idea, The Power fails to fully realize its characters and story arc.
The Power’s cast of characters is compelling enough. Allie is a survivor of sexual assault in foster care; she’s also host to an unnervingly perspicacious voice of nebulous origin. There’s Roxy: the scrappy, illegitimate daughter of a London crime boss. Next comes Margot: a mild-mannered, middle-aged mayor of a large American city. The lone sympathetic male in Alderman’s dichotomous universe of perpetrators and victims is Tunde, an opportunistic and charming Nigerian freelancer. Each character will be a mixture of observer and culprit in the ensuing chaos, but each serves as a canvass for Alderman’s pallet of images, introduced early on. Power, Alderman’s narrator tells us, is compared to a tree, water, and a storm. It’s these motifs Alderman revisits again and again through her characters to signify that a female takeover of the world is biologically inevitable.
Early on, via Allie’s perspective, we’re told “the earth yearns for a storm”. At the invitation of the Voice, Allie commits her first act of violence to the smells of rainfall. Along with storms and lightning, tree imagery abounds. Female-inflicted shocks leave scars in the form of ferns and branches. Tunde observes as he reports yet another girl-led revolt, “There is a scent of something in the air, a smell like rainfall after a long drought. First one person, then five, then five hundred then villages, then cities, then states. Bud to bud and leaf to leaf. Something new is happening”.
Water imagery soaks the narrative too. The Voice draws Allie to a swarm of electric eels which exemplify how she can control others with threads from her Skein. In Margot, the power is described as “sloshing across her collarbone”. Tunde interviews a woman who says, “a wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries… and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami.”
The flow of water in the novel signifies an inevitable, sweeping change. Water imagery joins Biblically-inspired eschatological language that promises apocalypse via flood: “It has been long in coming….The dust is parched, the soil longs for soaking, teeming dark water. For the earth is filled with violence, and every living thing has lost its way. In the north and south and east and west, the water gathers in the corners of the sky”. In addition, one of the characters gets their skein cut out and their scar appears as an upside-down rainbow, a sign that another Flood-sized ruin is nigh. Along with the tree and storm imagery, the water motif surges with the narrative toward its final catastrophe.
Though her imagery is one of the most effective devices in the novel, Alderman’s poet’s penchant for conveying her core idea through visuals is what ultimately leads her away from a palatable narrative. Swarms are another motif. When first hearing about the power emerging in girl after girl, Margot thinks of a swarm of ants she saw in the spring, how they hatched from the ground and took flight to breed in massive quantities “Why now? Why right now? And she comes up again and again with those ants, biding their time, waiting for the spring.”
Tunde, when he lands in Riyadh, writes how the women “swarmed” through the city to overturn the patriarchy, turning “into a hundred. A hundred into a thousand”. Allie turns into a Priestess of sorts and her newfound acolytes mob a police station and are described as a “crowd of murmuring birds”. Like the other images, the motif of swarms signifies this sea-change of women’s rise to power and men’s fight against it, the ensuing conflict wiping the world’s slate clean, only this time with women uncontestably on top.
It’s a convenient plot to contain an already long novel with a premise so intriguing, volumes more could be written. Plus, it supports Alderman’s notion that a change in biology would turn the table completely, compelling a conflict along gender lines toward cataclysm. However, her conclusion is unnecessarily stark and doomed to melodrama in its execution. Would virtually all women be cowed by a 20-something priestess like Allie? Allie’s hollow “sermons” are facsimiles of the Bible that read more like schlock monologues from a Marvel movie villain. Would “empowered” women monolithically adhere to an obvious cult of control? Would they all be propelled to reflexively dominate men? Alderman’s plot draws her away from common sense and the work suffers for it.
In the end, The Power, the novel isn’t a feminist work because it supposes that women are as susceptible to power as men are. Perhaps this isn’t a flaw but a product of Alderman’s worldview, which says men and women are essentially the same. Alderman shares this through her anagrammatically named narrator, Neil Adam Armon, who posits “Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there”.
Even if a reader shares Alderman’s perspective, the notion of womankind snowballing into Amazonian, men-eating warriors makes for a surprisingly tepid read in places. During the middle half of the novel, where Alderman’s language runs dry, the sheer inevitability of womankind’s take-over siphons suspense. This is especially true when compared with other high-concept fiction such as Jason Mott’s The Returned, from 2014, which manages to maintain its edge-of-seat pace while its story reinvents and extends itself in unique and surprising ways.
Just as the Power’s inevitable takeover is communicated through organic imagery, the novel’s tenor is supported by Biblical allusion. The convent Allie comes to is described as too massive for the minuscule number of members currently drawn to the male Christian God, indicating how the Christian epoch is at an end, receding in the wake of the Mother God—an anthropomorphism of the Voice that Allie has heard in her head all along. Allie’s ascension to power re-enacts Christ’s entrance into ministry.
She uses her electric tendrils like surgical instruments to heal one of the girls at the convent which “was the first sign, and at this time they came to say: this one is special to the Heavens”, like God christening Christ after being baptized. Allie then baptizes a group of “around ten” girls who, like the disciples of the Gospels, aren’t anything special. Like Christianity however, this new religion is used to control others and establish groupthink. Allie, renamed as Mother Eve, immediately ejects a dissenting voice. Religion for Mother Eve is just another tentacle of power.
Forbidden fruit is a trope in the novel’s Biblical vernacular. Before girls emit their power to inflict violence on others, there’s the smell of fruit or citrus. More explicitly, Allie, in full-Priestess mode, gives herself the “Eve” pseudonym. “Eve passed the apple to Adam…maybe that’s what the world needed. A bit of shaking up. Something new”, Allie thinks. The forbidden fruit imagery knots together brilliantly with the other motifs in the novel’s final movement.
Unfortunately, Alderman’s visuals have a far more satisfying arc than her characters. For instance, Allie and Margot adopt personae that allow them to maximize their consolidation of power: Allie as Priestess Mother Eve, Margot as political mastermind at the helm of a Blackwater-like organization. In these roles, both characters ascend to positions of arch power that are as boring as they are brutal.
Near the end of the novel, both have opportunities to surprise a reader, put down their masks and become in-fleshed again as people—driven to act out of passion, impulse, and intuition. Alas, Alderman is under contract. She has a book to finish. And thus Allie and Margot remain ciphers in this idea-driven work of genre fiction where characters and language are mere tools.
Allie is a hollow character. A traumatic past on its own can’t make a character compelling. The best characters evoke pathos, disgust, and admiration in readers. Allie does none of these things. Allie remains Mother Eve, thematically necessary but dull. There are keystrokes that start to tickle readers with a real Allie. When she first arrives to the convent, a nun tells her she can only stay if she enters the order and Allie thinks “They always say they love you, but they never want you to stay”.
Allie’s ache for longing here is the bud of a great character, but Allie’s means of creating a place for herself is effortlessly earned and unbelievably cutthroat. There’s nothing in her background that explains her reflexive ability to cull a crowd of women with Biblical allusion. Thus, her palpability as a character suffers.
Roxy and Tunde, the most round and sympathetic characters, have arcs that intersect in ways that could have served the work well had they crossed paths earlier, but probably not enough to elevate the novel above its genre. Alderman’s visual unification notwithstanding, the work’s language is sophomoric. “Frowned” and “excited” appear with maddening frequency. Roxie speaks in a cockney accent that is stereotypically disappointing.
The artifacts and alternate forms (chat boards, invitation cards) aren’t enough to float readers through the prose’s line-by-line mediocrity. It’s through Margot that we get the most annoying and unsuccessful of the many attempts to mix up the narrative: a pair of nattering talking heads. The talking heads are news anchors who have full-length, awkwardly phrased diatribes about delicate contemporary events on air that ring false, if not ridiculous.
Like many western works, The Power contains sermons. Allie’s sermonizing, however, is unoriginal and unsurprising compared with, say Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian. In dinner parties and political scenes, cogent observations and social commentary are lacking, especially when compared with the book’s spiritual mother, Margaret Atwood’s TheHandmaid’s Tale from 1985.
This all notwithstanding, with its relative suspense and apropos themes for our zeitgeist, The Power remains a “fun” work to read. Using the word “fun” might seem like an ironic stumble into a trap laid by Alderman. Her stand-in narrator, Neil, prickles at the word when his work is described as “fun” by his associate, Naomi (metafictional wink, wink here). In response, Neil demands his work be taken seriously. But in broaching this metafictional debate, the work reveals its internal ambivalence over its own classification—literary or speculative genre fiction. In the end, to its detriment, The Power‘s loyalty to the former wins out.
However, given that its onscreen adaptation is a series and is to have its cast played by vanguard actors (Toni Collette as Margot) and promising new talents (Toheeb Jimoh as Tunde; Halle Bush as Allie), perhaps The Power’s characters will be given more time to come into their own and more fully realize the novel’s potential.