48 pages 1 hour read

Naomi Alderman

The Power

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Influenced by the dystopian futuristic vision of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 feminist work The Handmaid’s Tale, Naomi Alderman’s 2016 novel The Power fuses genre elements of speculative fiction with the traditional historical novel. Part allegory, part satire, the novel depicts a near-contemporary world in which women move into positions of real power through an inexplicable genetic anomaly: they develop an extra braid of muscle along their collarbones that enables them to shoot devastating jolts of electricity through their fingertips.

The Power is a frame narrative. A historian five-thousand years in the future has written a historical novel about the ten years leading up to an unspecified global catastrophe that hurled humanity back to the “Stone Age” and from which emerged the new world of empowered women. He is negotiating to find a publisher for the novel. Tapping into the international craze generated by the Hulu series based on Atwood’s work, Alderman’s novel became an international best seller and was optioned as a series on Amazon Prime. The novel won the U.K.’s prestigious Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, awarded annually to the most outstanding English-language novel about women by a woman. 

The study guide cites the 2016 Little Brown paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Historian and amateur novelist Neil Adam Armon has completed a fictional account of the world in the last ten years of the old age some five-thousand years earlier before the emergence of women as the dominant gender. The work, grounded in Armon’s research into obscure archives, focuses on four characters: Allie Montgomery-Taylor, a 14-year old American girl and a product of the abuse within the foster care system; Roxy Munke, the teenaged daughter of a British underworld drug kingpin; Margot Cleary, an ambitious Midwestern politician; and Nigerian Olatunde Edo, an investigative journalist savvy in social media. The novel’s perspective moves between these four characters chapter to chapter as each adjusts to the new reality of women able to incapacitate any threat through electrical shocks, even as scientists struggle to explain the development of the dangerous new muscle called a skein.

Growing up in the South amid the abuses of foster care, Allie finally rebels. Using her newfound power, she kills her foster father while he is raping her. She listens to a voice in her head that directs her to escape to freedom. She ends up in the care of nuns in a remote convent in South Carolina. As the nuns discover her powers, Allie herself emerges as a charismatic and mysterious leader of a new revisionist theology that positions women in the center of Christianity. She calls herself Eve—later Mother Eve—and across several months improves her own power to direct the electrical surges while training the convent nuns to do the same. Using the reach of the Internet, Mother Eve comes to minister to a growing international community of women drawn to her startling re-envisioning of the Christian Gospels that recast God as a mother and the quietly powerful Mary as the central figure in the salvation narrative.

After watching rivals of her powerful syndicate father kill her mother in her own home, Roxy Monke uses her powers to kill the thugs responsible for the murder. Her father helps her flee to America for her own safety. Drawn by the Mother Eve’s Internet videos, Roxy heads to the convent in South Carolina. She is taken by Eve’s message of female empowerment. When Roxy returns to London, she backs a shadowy enterprise that seeks to manufacture and sell a street drug, Glitter, that is able to enhance the skein’s electrical jolt. The drug is an international sensation. 

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Margot Cleary, a small-time mayor with aspirations for national office, sees the potential for the skein as an opportunity to cripple any male political rivals, literally and figuratively. She puts her weight behind the development initially in her state but then across the country in camps where young girls are trained to handle the power. On the strength of that idea, Margot runs successfully for governor, delivering a devastating shock to a patronizing male rival during a debate, which, far from disturbing voters, gains their admiration. On a platform of empowering women around the world, she then runs successfully for the U.S. Senate. As a senator, Margot sees the possibility of a female-centered society but only through military means.

During the same timeframe, in a former Soviet country, Tatiana Moskalev, a despot with a radical vision of global female empowerment, leads a revolution in which women join her in establishing Bessapara, a new nation for liberated and empowered women.

As across the globe women begin to test their new powers and assert their authority, the violence and confrontations are recorded by an idealistic Nigerian journalist named Olatunde Edo, or Tunde. Using the camera on his phone, he captures various uprisings among long oppressed women around the world. Through his video posts, Tunde gives the world a sense of the new age, its wonders and its terrors. He goes to Bessapara and witnesses atrocities as the women assert their control over men who challenge their authority. War breaks out between factions of Moskalev’s own country, as men seek to end the women’s revolution in the breakaway nation of Bessapara. Mother Eve flies to Bessapara to lend her spiritual support to the women’s cause, and Roxy heads there to introduce Glitter to the female soldiers as a way to enhance their powers. As a powerful senator, Margot uses the network of training camps across America to prepare waves of female recruits to fight in what is becoming an international conflict. Bessapara becomes a rallying cry for women around the globe.

Under Tatiana’s despotic vision, however, the laws in Bessapara begin to target men for routine humiliations, bogus arrests, and capricious imprisonment. Men are beaten and even raped by the women with impunity. Tunde, working undercover, records these realities and broadcasts them to the world. The emerging totalitarian government alarms the deeply spiritual Mother Eve. The voice in her head tells her to seek a world sanely governed by moral and righteous women who respect rather than destroy men. Mother Eve uses her own skein to manipulate Tatiana to slit her own throat and is then elected leader of Bessapara.

But Mother Eve’s voice turns messianic—she believes that a balanced society run by women cannot be realized until man’s civilization is reduced to rubble and a new world built. Senator Cleary incites the American government to side with Bessapara. That is the tipping point. Although no details are provided, the frame narrative suggests that an unnamed cataclysm, most likely a nuclear event, sent humanity back to its beginnings. Now, five-thousand years later, society has been rebuilt now with women in charge and Mother Eve held in mythic esteem.

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By Naomi Alderman