The Power by Naomi Alderman, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year in England, has already been hailed as “our era’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale,'” it’s that good. The novel imagines women suddenly having the ability, thanks to environmental pollutants, to emit from their hands electrical charges of varying degrees — from prickly little tickles to fatal blows. The book asks and answers in clever, page-turning prose, What happens when the gender power structure gets flipped upside-down, when women possess the ability to control men with not only the threat of violence, but the free exercise of it?
Alderman unfolds the societal transformation slowly and subtly, following a set of characters from different corners of the world as they push — and keep pushing — the limits of their newfound power and resulting freedom. In one early scene, a woman, who’s been rioting in the streets of Riyadh with her female compatriots, takes the hand of a young, up-and-coming male journalist embedded with the mob and leads him up to an empty apartment:
…she takes off his jacket, pulls the shirt over his head. She looks at his body as she did before: open and hungry. She kisses him.
…She puts her palm to his chest. “I am a free woman,” she says.
…She unbuttons his jeans and he steps out of them; she goes carefully; he can feel her skein starting to hum. He is afraid, he is turned on; it is all bundled up together, as it is in his fantasies.
“You are a good man,” she says. “You are beautiful.”
She runs the back of her hand over the sparse fur of his chest. She lets a tiny crackle go, a prickle at his hair’s ends, glowing faintly. It feels good. Every line of his body is coming into focus as she touches him, as if he hand’t really been there at all, before.
He wants to be inside her; his body is already telling him what to do, how to move this thing forward, how to take her arms, how to bring her down on to the bed, how to consummate. But the body has contradictory impulses: fear is as significant as lust, physical pain as strong as desire. He holds himself there, wanting and not-wanting. He lets her set the pace.
It takes a long while, and it is good. She shows him what to do, with his mouth and with his fingers. By the time she is riding him, sweating and calling out, the sun has risen on a new day in Riyadh. And when she loses control as she finishes she sends a jolt through his buttocks and across his pelvis and he barely feels the pain at all, so great is the delight.
In most “realistic” novels, these roles would be reversed: the man would make the first move, lead the way, and start the undressing, while the woman would be nervous but sexually awakened and even defined by the man’s first touch. Here, it is she who seduces him, tells him he’s beautiful, shows him what to do, rides on top in the power position, and — perhaps most strikingly — has a climactic orgasm that ends the scene. There is no thought or attention given, by either the female character or the author, to the man’s own orgasm, as if the honor of just being a part of her pleasure should be enough. Sound familiar?
Do yourself a favor and read The Power, both for the heavy philosophical questions it raises and for the sheer fun of it. You’ll be struck by the perfect timing of this book, hitting the States just as we as a culture are finally grappling openly and honestly with the vast sexual abuses of men in power.
As one of Alderman’s character’s asks, “Why did they do it?” Another answers, “Because they could.”