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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

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

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The latest novelistic offering in Hogarth Shakespeare’s project to refashion the bard’s tales into contemporary retellings, Vinegar Girl compellingly revitalises one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, The Taming of the Shrew.

The challenge of remaining faithful to a play that has generally been interpreted as a sexist endorsement of patriarchal hegemony seems daunting, but Tyler pulls off the feat of sticking to the general plotline and the central characters outlined in Shakespeare’s text without espousing its misogynistic overtones.

Tyler achieves this by softening the rougher edges of the characters to make the play’s gender politics and the whole notion of dominance more palatable to the modern reader. She revamps Petruchio as Pyotr, a less lordly and far more endearing, critical and provocative, but not ideologically sexist male. He’s a Russian immigrant who works as an invaluable assistant for Dr. Battista, Kate’s father, a scientist engaged in cutting-edge experiments. Although Kate is headstrong and clearly not someone who will let any male chauvinist walk all over her rights, she is not obdurate and agrees (with some misgivings) to marry Pyotr so that he can obtain a green card. Although it starts out as a sham wedding, the love interest develops and it quickly becomes a marriage of true minds.

Kate is from the start a less headstrong, more compliant Katherina, since she is accommodating and kind-hearted, despite her vinegary temperament. She lets herself be coaxed into helping and later allows herself to fall in love with Pyotr because his social awkwardness reminds her of her own bristly relationships to others. It is not that Kate becomes submissive but rather that she is seduced by Pyotr’s desire for her and finds his forcefulness and his critical edge similar to her own.

It would have been easy to turn this tale ino a feminist manifesto in which the tables are turned and the tamer is humbled and comes to recognise patriarchy for what it is. John Fletcher’s sequel to Shakespeare’s play, The Woman’s Prize or the Tamer Tamed, attempted a farcical take on that within Shakespeare’s lifetime. Tyler challengingly abides by the original storyline, exploring the notion of character growth, making the shrew’s change of heart entirely plausible without demeaning the young woman.

Tyler is known for her ability to limn character, and Vinegar Girl is no exception to that rule. Character for Tyler is a fluid substance, one that wavers, reflects, twists and turns. Although the two sisters are initially presented as foils, they gradually begin to resemble each other. Bianca the ingénue of Shakespeare’s play is rendered as Bunny, a teenager whose name says it all. By the end of the story, the two sisters have unwittingly exchanged their characters. The last few pages of the novel leave the reader with an enraged Bunny turned shrew, berating her sister for having become so sweet and compliant.

In some ways Vinegar Girl comes across as a response to negative criticism that Tyler has had to withstand over the years, despite her overwhelmingly positive reviews. It has for instance been argued that her characters are too sweet and her endings too felicitous. In an interview for The Guardian, Tyler reacted to the criticism: “For one thing I think it is sort of true. I would say piss and vinegar for [Philip] Roth and for me milk and cookies. I can’t deny it…. [However] there’s more edge under some of my soft language than people realise.” The vinegar in the title of her latest novel reads like a determined bid to give the narrative some teeth, and the first half does have quite a humorous, sardonic bite. One can’t help wishing that Kate’s acidity could have lasted longer or been a little more corrosive nevertheless.

Another criticism that has been levelled at Tyler is that her male characters lack testosterone. This is amply made up for by Pyotr who doesn’t hesitate to punch the young man who abducts his lab mice. Pyotr’s article-clipped Russian English also endows him with a roughness that leaves him anything but effete.

All in all, it’s a pleasure to read Vinegar Girl, and although it may not rank with Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, it’s certainly a lively, quirky, entertainingly rendered oddball family chronicle.

 

By Erik Martiny


Vinegar-girl
Vinegar Girl
by Anne Tyler, Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99