Alright this book sounded like the perfect one for me right from the start, for a number of reasons. Essentially it’s a feminist fantasy/scifi sort of situation – pretty much my two favorite genres rolled into one. So immediately it was on my TBR list. And then it won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which is an awesome and prestigious award, but what happened then was a lot of people read it and the reviews I was seeing got really mixed. However, it’s hard to tell whether it was because it’s just one of those polarizing award winning books or if it’s because lots of people who aren’t necessarily into those genres tried it, or some other reason. So I held off for a little while before starting it. However, eventually I just realized I needed to say “screw the reviews” and go for it, because as I’ve mentioned, it sounds right up my alley. In the end, OMG I LOVED IT. And to be honest, maybe if I hadn’t had my expectations tempered a little before starting, I may have felt differently. But who knows, I may not have… I just straight loved this book. Probably my favorite read of 2018 so far.
“She cuppeth the lightening in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”
Basically, this story starts in our world today. Technology, social media, politics, the normal “men are in charge” situations, etc. that we are currently facing. But then something happens, something big. Women, and only women, start to develop a power, a little like an electric current running through their bodies, that can be activated/used at will. As it spreads and it takes times for all women to learn to control it, and as per usual with the unknown, it is greeted with fear. School aged boys and girls are separated for the safety of the boys all the way up to females in political and public worker positions being “tested” and removed from office/positions if they have the power. In many cases, women who have long been suppressed are using it to fight back – governments are overthrown and women are quickly overtaking the positions of physical and sexual power in the world and in relationships that have always belonged to men. With just a flick of their fingers, women can now cause pain and death…and with this exchange of power comes drastic changes. Told from a number of perspectives: Allie (an emerging religious icon with a troubled childhood), Roxy (a daughter of a crime family who is ready for some revenge), Margot (an ambitious female politician), Jocelyn (Margot’s daughter who is struggling with her new power), and Tunde (a reporter and our only male narrator), we watch as this story unfolds and the lengths to which each will go to gain power or control or recognition or the feeling of safety that they’ve always longed for.
I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this book justice in this review. But I will try my best. This is just a phenomenal and mind-blowing speculative social study, a sweeping and all-encompassing thought experiment. I’ve seen comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale and, while I loved and read that and can see why, I’m not totally sure it’s the same. Just for me, this was more compelling. Maybe it’s just because I read it more recently, but it provides the context and proceeds to spell out for you how the world would look with an entire gender role reversal. And I mean granted, it’s an imagination based representation, and technically the same concepts and discussion points are brought up with this as with Atwood’s masterpiece, but this one is just more visceral – Atwood’s is a complete dystopian horror of if what we had now was just exaggerated (and at times not even that much, frighteningly…) whereas Alderman completely flips what we have on it’s head and says ‘ok, but what if it was the other way around?’ I could go on for a long time here, but mainly, I feel like they’re more complementary explorations as opposed equivalent ones. Hopefully that makes sense.
But back to my original point, this exploration of traditional gender-based role reversals makes you think so much. And I loved that! Its points are made with flashing, colorful fireworks that you cannot help but acknowledge and appreciate. It is absolutely extraordinary how many points of view these gender roles (both traditional and this new “flipped” version) are considered from: everything from social/norms to political to economic to religious, and in consideration of violence, the media, that history is written by the people in power, and more. I particularly love all the ways that Alderman is able to show the way that ingrained gender roles and, in our world, patriarchy, routinely crush (even when they don’t mean to) the lower gender(s). It’s not just in the depictions of the roles, but in the flip of the rhetoric as well. And in many cases it’s not just the obvious, like women taking sexual advantage of men, moving into primary power roles as leaders of nations, stealing/taking credit for the work men have done, and expressing their new power through instilling fear in men and creating rigid rules for them to follow that reduce their freedoms dramatically, etc. But it’s the small things too, like the intelligent female news anchor who gets to report on the “important” topics and the sidekick, young, attractive male co-anchor that covers the fluff topics. Those small things that you maybe wouldn’t pick out/recognize unless you’d had to live them, in the background, for years… However at the same time, Alderman does credit to herself by not portraying everything as a single sided issue. The idea that power comes with its own challenges and responsibilities, that are easy to take advantage of, is central here. There are definitely women who take everything they can get at the expense of men around them and still want and work for more. There are the crooked female politicians and overzealous, crazed female country leaders. There are religious fanatics following a “cult” female religious leader. And there are, of course, the men that are living repressed and in fear, as many women do today. All of these issues are the similar to those we face now, the very same, in some cases, regardless of which gender has control. It’s layered and thorough and fascinating and just…wow.
Along with all that, I think some interesting side-plots are explored that parallel certain marginalized or reactionary groups of today as well. Women that do not ever get the power (or that never learn to consistently control it), the few men who are born with a genetic anomaly and do get the power, and “gender traitors” or women who disagree with the way their powers are being used to subjugate others and vice versa in men – these groups do as good of a job as possible recognizing and representing the modern fight for equal rights for all gender and sexuality identities (and related opinions). I mean, it’s not perfect, but considering this is one book and is therefore super limited in comparison to the many levels of challenges we face in real life, I felt like it was well developed. Relatedly, and perhaps the one big bone I have to pick with this book, is the play on stereotypes for certain parts of the world. For example, places like India and Saudi Arabia, which are (more or less reasonably) criticized in general for their treatment of women, were very much played up as locales for violent regime overthrow with the introduction of the power, while places like the US (who really do not get enough criticism of their unequal treatment of women because it’s perhaps more…insidious? subtle? deceptive?) were portrayed with more diplomatic takeovers. Now I’m not saying I agree or disagree that that’s how this would fall out (I mean, this is fantasy, remember), but I do think in a couple places the stereotypes were used gratuitously while in other places the peacefulness was perhaps too optimistic? Who knows…just my thoughts there. But it’s a small thing, really, in the grand scheme of what this book accomplishes.
This is already super long, so I’m going to cut it here. But I hope that I was able to do at least a passable job in showing how impressed I was with this novel. It’s such a deeply created and portrayed inverse world and since I’ve finished I just cannot stop thinking about it. There is so much to discuss, so many amazing points made, both large and small. I can absolutely see how this has won so many awards. And though I can also see how it’s been so controversial/gotten such mixed reviews, I have to say that I personally think it was all completely deserved and I’ll definitely be recommending it widely. Every time I think I’ve hit on and thought about every detail and every theme, something else occurs to me and I want to talk/think about all of it all over again. Possibly ad nauseum…I think my husband is totally sick of me talking about this book. SO if you’ve read it and want to talk…send me a message or comment below!
There were a number of quotes/passages that I wanted to share. Here’s a sample:
“One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’
And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’
That is the only answer there ever is.”
“‘God loves all of us,’ she says, ‘and She wants us to know that She has changed her garment merely. She is beyond female and male, She is beyond human understanding. But She calls your attention to that which you have forgotten. Jews: look to Miriam, not Moses, for what you can learn from her. Muslims: look to Fatima, not Muhammad. Buddhists: remember Tara, the mother of liberation. Christians: pray to Mary for your salvation.”
“You have been taught that you are unclean, that you are not holy, that your body is impure and could never harbour the divine. You have been taught to despise everything you are and to long only to be a man. But you have been taught lies.”
“The shape of power is always the same: it is infinite, it is complex, it is forever branching. While it is alive like a tree, it is growing; while it contains itself, it is a multitude. Its directions are unpredictable; it obeys its own laws. No one can observe the acorn and extrapolate each vein in each leaf of the oak crown. The closer you look, the more various it becomes. However complex you think it is, it is more complex than that. Like the rivers to the ocean, like the lightning strike, it is obscene and uncontained.”
“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”
“Don’t be afraid. The only way to defeat this is not to be afraid. But the animal part of himself was afraid. There is a part in each of us which holds fast to the old truth: either you are the hunter or you are the prey. Learn which you are. Act accordingly. Your life depends upon it.”
“This is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was.”