The Power: Book Review

Isha Adhikari explores Naomi Alderman’s Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning novel The Power (2016), reading Alderman’s creation of the “skein” as a metaphor for puberty.

Red, white and black book cover design with a graphic of a woman under ‘The Power’ in bold letters, surrounded by lightning bolts.
Figure 1: Cover Image of The Power by Naomi Alderman, (Penguin, 2016).

Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016) presents a speculative fiction landscape where women wield a formidable force: the ability to generate electrical power. In Alderman’s novel, young girls undergo a physical transformation where they develop “a strip of striated muscle” on their collarbones, granting them the ability to generate and discharge electricity (Alderman, p. 20). They also possess the capacity to activate this power in older women. Through this motif of a supernatural power known as the “skein, the novel provides an exciting space to critique phallocentric representations of the female body. This electrostatic power, inherent in women, offers a compelling avenue for discussions surrounding menstruation and puberty-a vastly overlooked area in women’s health discourse. Although the book was first published in 2016 and was the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017, it has recently gained renewed attention with its adaptation into an Amazon Prime series named The Power (2023). As a menstrual health researcher, one may come across The Power while investigating the representation of menstruation in literature. Its potential to engage with themes of menstruation and puberty makes it an interesting work to explore within the context of critical menstruation studies.

Pink lightning bolts over a town and lake at night
Figure 2: Image of pink lightning bolts over a town and lake at night, (Unsplash).

The Skein: A Metaphor for Puberty

Even though the novel has been described as “our era’s [The] Handmaid’s Tale”, The Power stands in complete contrast with Atwood’s novel by asserting sexual agency in women while simultaneously shedding light on the perpetuation of certain phallocentric ideals such as  Mayor Cleary’s supposed dictatorship. Margot Cleary being one of the main characters whose skein is evoked by the touch of her teenage daughter.  Central to the narrative of The Power are teenage girls, typically between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, who possess a full skein, symbolizing the threshold of puberty. Jocelyn, the daughter of Margot Cleary, the Mayor of Seattle, is introduced as a teenager with fluctuating powers, unlike other girls with more stable abilities, casting her as an outcast in the plot. In contrast, Roxy Monke, a fourteen-year-old daughter of a British crime boss Bernie Monke, first uses her power to kill the man responsible for her mother’s murder. Meanwhile, Allie Montgomery-Taylor, a sixteen-year-old girl, uses her power to kill her abusive stepfather and goes on to become Mother Eve, a proclaimer of a female God.

“It wasn’t long after her visit to that factory that she noticed this thing she could do. There was no urgency in it; it was like the day she noticed her hair had gotten long. It must have been happening all that time, quietly.They were at dinner. Allie reached for her fork and a spark jumped from her hand”.

Naomi Alderman, The Power, p. 36.

In addition to these female characters, there are significant male leads such as Tunde, a twenty-one-year-old Nigerian journalist who documents the world’s transition into a matriarchal society, and Darrell, Roxy’s step-brother, who steals the skein from Roxy and becomes the first man in Alderman’s fictional world to have an implanted skein.

Figure 3: Image of a pair of feet taken from above, showing period blood on a white tiled floor, (Unsplash).

Viewing the Onset of Power as Menarche

In the opening chapters, characters like Roxy and Jocelyn experience the awakening of their powers in distinct ways. Roxy, at fourteen, unlocks her abilities in a moment of self-defence, describing the sensation as “needle-pricks of light” radiating through her body when she defends her mother from assailants (Alderman, p. 9). Similarly, Jocelyn’s discovery of her power begins subtly, manifesting as a “twist” when she employs it to play a school prank on a boy (Alderman, p. 23). Allie’s gradual realization of her power at sixteen is depicted as a quiet, natural progression, akin to the subtle growth of her hair. This progression parallels the onset of menstruation in their lives, with electricity and blood intertwined within the female body. As Alderman describes, “This same shape grows within us, our inward trees of nerves and blood vessels…. We are electrical. The power travels within us as it does in nature” (Alderman, p. 3). This correlation between blood and electrical power reinforces the notion of the monstrous feminine, as described by Barbara Creed, where menarche symbolizes the development of supernatural abilities, as seen in Stephen King’s Carrie (Mondragón Paredes, p. 84)

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike. There’s a crackling flash and a sound like a paper snapper. She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm and a bit like burning hair. The taste welling under her tongue is of bitter oranges” (Alderman, 19).

Naomi Alderman, The Power, p. 19.

Furthermore, the novel employs multiple perspectives to develop the plot, with events retrospectively leading to a climactic mystery. Each character views the world from their unique context: Roxy is from Britain, while Tunde hails from Nigeria. Through Tunde’s journalism, the novel explores various movements that arise in different locations, such as Riyadh and Delhi. The discovery of girls possessing electrostatic power elicits polarized reactions, ranging from governments training young girls to use their powers more “efficiently” to the outbreak of gender-based conflicts.

Figure 4: Image of two fingers making a peace symbol covered in menstrual blood against a grey background, (Unsplash).

Redefining Menstruation: From Pollution to Power

Additionally, the narrative illustrates a correlation between pregnancy hormones and heightened power, exemplified by a pregnant woman in Arizona experiencing an intensified cycle of electrical activity (Alderman, p. 170). The phenomenon of young girls evoking the power in older women could also be interpreted as the stereotypical notion of menstruation which Rose George terms a “powerful polluting thing” where contact with a menstruating woman renders others impure (George, p. 183). In her book Nine Pints, George discusses how periods are still deeply entwined with purity culture, forcing menstruators to seek exile under often hostile conditions during their menstrual cycles. This perception of menstruation as a dirty, polluting event positions it as a hygienic crisis that must be concealed and kept away from society, thereby perpetuating the stigma surrounding menstruation. However, this powerlessness is reversed through Alderman’s narrative as it does not make the older women impure but instead kickstarts the electrostatic power in them. This interchangeability of power induced by the skein and hormones underscores a metaphorical reading of power as puberty.  Furthermore, instances in the novel, such as when Enuma, a seventeen-year-old girl and cousin of Tunde’s friend from his college photo-journalism class, unintentionally unleashes electricity on Tunde, a twenty-one-year-old aspiring Nigerian journalist who films women using their newfound power and puts it online, during an intimate moment, highlight the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of power’s emergence (Alderman, p. 23). This incident, akin to a surge of hormonal influence during puberty, underscores the volatile and spontaneous characteristics of this power.

This book is suitable for undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as menstrual health researchers. It would also appeal to feminist scholars and readers of speculative fiction who enjoyed Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). With its themes of female rage, the reversal of power, and a unique perspective on power and sex, The Power is an engaging read for those who appreciate bold and provocative fiction.

Conclusion

By interpreting the skein as a metaphor for puberty and menstruation, the novel initiates discussions on the often-taboo subject of menstruation and presents a discourse that embraces menstruation positively. Consequently, this novel, traditionally analysed for its treatment of significant issues like female rage, also holds promise for enriching the discourse within medical humanities.

About the Author

Isha Adhikari is a dedicated feminist scholar currently pursuing an M.Phil. in Modern and Contemporary Literary Studies at Trinity College Dublin. With a personal journey marked by struggles with dysmenorrhea and potential endometriosis, she brings a unique perspective and deep passion to her academic pursuits. Her research interests span across menstruation studies, medical humanities, feminist theory, and modern and contemporary women’s writing. Beyond her academic endeavours, Isha is a prolific writer whose work has been featured in publications such as Muse India, a UGC-approved journal promoting Indian writing and Smashboard, a France-India-based digital feminist magazine.

References

Alderman, Naomi. The Power. Large print edition. ed., ISIS Large Print, 2019.

Charles, Ron. “The Power” is our era’s “Handmaid’s Tale”,  The Washington Post, 10 Oct 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-power-is-our-eras-handmaids-tale/2017/10/10/032a5866-ad05-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html

George, Rose. Nine Pints : A Journey through the Mysterious, Miraculous World of Blood. Portobello Books, 2018.

Mondragón Paredes, Verónica. “Gender and the Monstrous-Feminine: Subversion in Naomi Alderman’s the Power.” Contemporary Women’s Writing, vol. 16, no. 1, 2022, pp. 79-97, doi:10.1093/cww/vpac008.

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