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The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Some suggest that science fiction is a woman’s genre. In its purest form, sci-fi reimagines the structures of society and, in the process, creates a topsy-turvy fairground mirror with devastating implications for the real world it reflects. From Suzanne Collins to Margaret Atwood, and right back to Mary Shelley, women writers have always questioned the prevailing ideas of their day by considering the near future.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is part of this grand tradition, not least because Atwood happens to be her mentor. The Power reminds us that questions about our own society can be asked and answered by imagining a totally different reality.

The novel is based on a simple concept: what would happen if every woman in the world acquired the ability to give electric shocks – some harmless, some fatal – from her fingertips? From that spark, everything changes, as women begin to realise that they are now stronger than men.

The Power is Alderman’s fourth literary novel, but she has also written a Doctor Who tie-in book (Borrowed Time) and is the lead writer on the exercise app ‘Zombies, Run!’. Her literary fiction has covered Orthodox Judaism, Oxford undergraduates, and even the origins of Christianity. This sweeping oeuvre is not only a demonstration of Alderman’s active imagination, but a testament to her wide-ranging abilities.

This latest offering, however, marks a new stage in the author’s career. Her distinctive prose remains as clear and engaging as it was since her first novel, Disobedience; the narrative voice has a detached, almost amused tone, which reminds one incongruously of Jane Austen. Yet in The Power, this style reaches its most complex, presenting scenes of violence and revolution just as adeptly as individual thought and social commentary.

Indeed, the story is unflinching. Details of the terrible things humans do to each other fill the pages from chapter one. Ultimately this novel must confront a difficult question: would women abuse their physical power the same way men have for millennia? Alderman posits that they would, and explores the consequences of that misuse through the experiences of four central characters.

Roxy, the daughter of a British gangster, is the first we meet. Her story is central to the structure: each high and low of the change affects her, and she survives it all, ultimately the strongest out of everyone around her. Alderman originally drafted the novel with an early version of Roxy as its only main character, but the other three perspectives are just as crucial. Tunde, a Nigerian journalist, is especially important. His attitude towards the emergence of the power mimics Wordsworth’s thoughts on the French Revolution in The Prelude, and Alderman cannot resist slipping in those immortal “very heaven” lines. Revolution, she seems to be telling her reader, always starts with hope, and often ends in disaster.

Allie, a girl who escapes her abusive foster father and quickly establishes herself as the spiritual leader of this new age, is difficult to fathom. One is left with more questions than answers about her by the end, especially about the disembodied voice which guides her rise to importance. If The Power becomes a TV drama series – which seems likely, given that it has already attracted several offers of adaptation – Allie’s narrative could be further developed on screen.

More straightforward is Margot, an American politician who the discerning listener will notice sounds rather a lot like Hillary Clinton in The Power’s audio book. Her progression from insignificant mayor to waiting in the wings of the White House illustrates how the acquisition of power, both physical and political, is not without its moral compromises.

Together this selection of people expands the novel’s scope to an international setting. We see the repercussions of the power in Moldova, America, and Saudi Arabia as it becomes a global phenomenon. As it grows, Alderman gently shifts the tone from excitement to unease.

A series of letters which bookend the novel proper deepen the disquieting effect. Thousands of years after women gain the power to electrocute, Neil Adam Armon writes from the ‘Mens Writers Association’ to the alternative reality version of Naomi Alderman. This seems in the style of Mary Shelley, whose framing device in The Last Man suggests that the novel is a history of how the world ends. The Power encourages us to read it as though Neil has pieced together this account of a cataclysmic shift in human relations from historical artefacts, many of them recognisable as objects which we have today.

This disturbing thought increases the nervous tension which the book inflicts on its reader as you hurtle towards the end. Some parts are truly hard to read. It is not a joy in any context to read a scene in which a refugee camp is attacked by soldiers, let alone at a time when it has such stark resonance. All this, however, is necessary to process the ideas at the novel’s core. Power, Alderman shows us, can always be misused, no matter who holds it.

By Alys Key


the-powerThe Power, Naomi Alderman, Viking (Penguin), 2016, £12.99

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

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I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in London recently, when a Scottish man stopped me to say how much he’d enjoyed it – ‘best book ever’, he said. No-one, Scottish or otherwise, had ever done that to me before. But the man went on to say that he’d found another of Pamuk’s books My Name is Red disappointing (I think he used stronger words). I protested, but suggested he try The Museum of Innocence. I hope he does. But, regardless – Snow? Best book he’s ever read.

This ambivalent response is common, a function of the fact that Pamuk approaches every new book as a challenge to do something different. But A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) looks, at first, to be treading familiar ground. Pamuk returns to the theme of his memoir Istanbul: the city itself, and the way in which it has changed as Turkey has modernized. Pamuk’s formal hallmarks are all present: balance, limpid prose, a wicked sense of humour and a playful propensity to shift perspectives.

Strangeness is a new departure. The scope of the book is astonishing. The story is told through the life of Melvut, a gentle, naïve, migrant from Central Anatolia who spends his life walking Istanbul’s streets selling ‘boza’ a fermented yoghurt drink, and pondering on thoughts about fate inspired by his love for his wife, Rahiya, who he eloped with after having written her love letters for three years, but having only seen her once. While Melvut’s friends and family scramble to gain a foothold in modern Istanbul, he watches the city change beyond recognition, as wave after wave of migrants arrive and the slums become high rises Pamuk documents the development of Istanbul, and Turkey itself, over forty tumultuous years, with politics, religion and the relations between the sexes gliding on and off the stage.

Yet Strangeness never feels burdened with the expectations of a ‘state of the nation’ novel, or an experiment in Realism with a capital R. The background, while invariably fascinating, remains background. Melvut is always more concerned with his family and the city itself. Pamuk talks as engagingly about the loneliness of old age, and teenage masturbation as he does about Islamists, or ethnic politics in the suburbs. Often, the narrative voice loses itself in details of urban life, building sites, the contents of fridges, the history of electricity scams or, memorably, a tanker of sheep that runs aground in the Bosporus (with amusing consequences).

If the plot is kept moving by anything it is Melvut’s love for Rahiya and his search for an explanation to the ‘strangeness in his mind’. Why is he so drawn to the streets? Why is he so afraid of stray dogs? But the freedom and sympathy with which Pamuk moves through Melvut’s world means that he never needs to resort to the normal weights and pulleys: problems come and go unexpectedly, taking on more or less significance in unpredictable ways. Although Melvut has his share of hardships, he’s also almost permanently good natured and if this optimism starts to drag, which inevitably it does, Pamuk is always ready to jump into the heads of friends and family members, who address themselves from the page, boldly, secretively, always contradicting one another and arguing for their right to be heard.

In My Name Is Red Pamuk impersonated a tree, a dead-man and – brilliantly – a coin. In Strangeness he limits himself to people, but within those limits he’s at his most promiscuous, chopping and changing perspectives within scenes – though never at the expense of the reader. Most engaging are the women, who are invariably wiser than their men. Pamuk recounts the frustrations of domesticity, but also shows how they take ownership of their lives within these constraints. It soon becomes apparent that it is Melvut’s sister in law, Vediha, who is holding the extended family together.

There is no obvious agenda to any of this, which can become disorientating. But there is a definite thread running through Strangeness: the peculiarity of fiction itself, that ‘strangeness in the mind’ which compels someone to dream up whole worlds. Elsewhere, Pamuk has talked about how he has spent his life ‘narrating the streets of Istanbul’, and about how he feels that the city, its rapidly changing streets, the melancholia of the old buildings, the day-to-day life of the people that work there, has become a part of him, to the extent that he feels he has dreamt the whole thing up; the ultimate romantic vision, if you like, but also one laced with a sense of unease. If Pamuk has dreamed up Istanbul, what is it that he loves beyond his own powers of invention?

Pamuk’s achievement in Strangeness is to square this circle through a tremendous concentration of empathy. As Melvut’s best friend Ferhat, a meter reader, remarks, in a phrase a novelist would die for, ‘everyone in this city has a heart, and an electric meter.’ Pamuk has set all these hearts going, but they appear before the reader as completely human (no small task). Melvut is often struck by how it is ‘difficult… to tell the truth and be sincere at the same time.’ Difficult, A Strangeness in My Mind, seems to suggest, but not impossible.

By Jeremy Wikeley 

 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

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It is not practiced perfection that hits the right note in Ian McEwan’s most recent novel but the gloriously amateur, both in the life of his protagonist and the flow of McEwan’s prose. The novel hinges on the way in which the family court deals with the most painful and intimate things in life, centring on disputes over religion and love from the guarded perspective of the legal system that presides over such sensitive ground.

From the outside McEwan’s Fiona Maye has it all: money, culture, friends. A high court judge married to a professor of ancient history, she’s part of a world that is obese with its own wealth and cultural appetite. She’s able to mournfully play the piano to her society friends and yet — as McEwan shows — the only real joy from music and culture of any kind comes at a point of pure and accidental connection in the confines of a hospital ward.

McEwan is at his strongest when describing the weariness of a London street, the emotional haunting of a piano concerto, the painful tugs of memories caught within people, places and objects. His sentences fluidly move in the imagination, taking us in and out of characters and from scene to scene in familiar tones as he guides us through the pained legal processes in which law and love painfully clash. The only danger comes at points of nervous regurgitation; research remains a fundamental part of McEwan’s method and for a novel such as Saturday the fruits of this labour pay off handsomely. However in The Children Act this effort appears laborious, you can see the effort to make everything ‘authentic’ bursting at the seams, in his overzealous attempts to remain true to ‘facts’ in polemical moments, McEwan actually puts himself in danger of losing the thread of his own fiction, and becoming lost in reportage.

Maye is impenetrable, painfully withdrawn from her own life, a protagonist who remains sadly unsympathetic and caricatured, and this weakens the novel as a whole. The one good and unexpected thing she does — ironically — she bitterly regrets. Like a practised musician, McEwan is adept at pleasing an audience, and his writing here seems to echo the well-rehearsed music of his heroine. What we miss, perhaps, is the liveliness and sense of risk of some of his earlier novels; this is fluent and pleasing writing, but there is a sense in which it lacks the passion of live performance, lacks the very energy which McEwan appears to praise and point towards at the finest moments of this novel.