The Power – Naomi Alderman (2016)

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A science fiction/speculative fiction read that turns the typical gender power balance on its head and examines a possible result.

What would happen if women were suddenly given the power in this world? How would they end up treating men and each other? Is absolute power corrupting even for the “gentler” sex?

Published in 2016 (but written during 2014/15 during the early days of the Orange Goblin’s ascendancy), this novel is a book-within-a-book about a world that’s just different enough to be off-kilter for the reader of today.

In this near future, women have developed the ability to pass electricity through their fingertips, which over the years leads them to become the dominant gender. How would this would impact the development of world society over a few thousand years?

This is a memorable read that portrays a rather frightening world that’s evolving as the reader travels with the book’s characters. After decades, perhaps centuries, of being told that women are the “gentler” sex, when they are given power to dominate the world’s structure, do they treat the opposite gender as people think women would treat them?

The novel’s main protagonist is Mother Eve, who has grown up in an abusive environment and develops into the matriarch of a popular worldwide religion, and the book follows her development along with three other characters impacted by this change.

The NY Times book critic, Ron Charles, calls this book “our era’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’” and others have named it “the millennial’s ‘Handmaid Tale’”, but however you categorize it, it’s a gripping plot that moves along at the speed of lightning (or at the speed of the weaponized electricity coming out of women’s palms).

It’s a very believable tale as well. Who is to say that evolution or biochemical pollution won’t bring change in the human species or others? Whatever the reason, this is an adaptation that completely disrupts the world as we know it.

It starts in teenage girls, and as the girls grow up and as they show older women how to use their (sometimes latent) power, the adults start to understand what it is and how to use it. World politics and current events are impacted to create a whole new society.

The set-up means an end result that is much more nuanced than the two genders just swapping places. The plot turns stereotypes on their sides. For example, there are women who start to dress as men to communicate submissiveness, and there are boys who start to dress as girls to seem more powerful. And then there is the question of rape…

This was a provocative read for me.  Are humans the same regardless of gender, or are they really that different due to their gender?

Interestingly enough, Alderman had already established herself as a bright new star on the writing front prior to this manuscript being published, and as a result and through a Rolex-sponsored partnership, Alderman ended up being mentored by Margaret Atwood herself. (She also thanks Ursula Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler in the acknowledgements so it seems that she was influenced by some very strong writers. Imagine all those conversations!)

(Slightly random aside: It was also one of former President Obama’s favorite reads of 2017… High praise indeed. 🙂 )

This was a thoughtful and disquieting read about a future very different from now. At this time of misogyny and #MeToo, this novel evaluates the power of power itself.

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Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.