Naomi Alderman’s latest novel challenges gender norms by examining a dystopia in which women are the dominant sex.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel challenges gender norms by examining a dystopia in which women are the dominant sex.

Naomi Alderman and I are covering a lot of ground. Let’s see: Electric eels, feminism, ethical pornography, video games, the structures of organised religion, the future of education… oh, and novels, of course. And this is just over a couple of hours at breakfast in north London. “My conversation does tend to dot around all over the place,” she says, laughing. “Forgive me, that’s just how my brain works.”

But that’s the pleasure of an encounter with her; she’s the sort of person I feel I’ve known a long time, even though we’ve never met before. We’re here to talk about The Power, her fifth novel, a book that is quite literally shocking: It describes a parallel society in which women have the power to issue deadly electrical jolts from their bodies. They can use this ability to create a pleasant, sexy tingle… or to kill. It is a thrilling examination of what would happen in a world where the balance of power between men and women was suddenly, dramatically and completely altered. Gripping and disturbing, it pushes the reader—even the confidently feminist reader—to question the assumptions underlying many of the mechanisms that drive relationships between women and men.

The idea of the book, she says, came after a bad break-up. She was on the Tube, and she saw an advertisement for a new thriller: The image on it was a close-up of a woman’s face, streaked with tears. “Something in me just snapped,” she says. “I had been waking up every morning crying, and it felt as if society, through the medium of that poster, approved of my suffering. As if society was saying, ‘Yes, it’s sexy. Go ahead, be afraid, be sad, that’s great.’ So the horrible revenge-y part of my brain wondered, ‘What would the world have to be for me to see a man crying on a poster? A beautiful, sexy man, crying, tears rolling down his cheek?’ Of course, you could also ask what the world would be like if it wasn’t a place that celebrated anyone’s suffering, but in the moment of anger, that’s what I thought. So I worked out the basics of it on the Tube; it came to me then.”

If a novel that uses dystopia to address gender roles in society makes you think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s worth knowing that Atwood was influential for Alderman in more than just the usual way. “Of course, I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was a teenager, and it changed my life,” she says. “And I was an Orthodox Jewish teenager!” She laughs again— one of the pleasures of talking with Alderman is discussing very serious issues in an atmosphere of enlightened hilarity.

She encountered Atwood through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which joins more established creative figures with their younger counterparts. Atwood and Alderman were paired up in 2012-2013, and drafts of The Power developed with Atwood’s input. Atwood was “very kind” about an early version that came in at 200,000 words (double the length of the average novel); the book needed a lot of refining, Alderman says. “We talked about where this power would have maximal effect in the world; it was out of those conversations that I started thinking about organised crime, for instance.”

That said, it’s important to stress that Alderman is very much her own writer, and The Power is very much her own book. One of the things I admire about it, I tell her, is how it’s clear she is not arguing that the world would be a better place if women had the upper hand. “I don’t think that’s what any woman who calls herself a feminist thinks that’s what we’re going for,” she says. “I have been disappointed by the idea since I was 14 years old. When I was 14, I had a very pure idea of what the world could and should be—and I think young people today have that.” And she herself remains hopeful about the future; hers is a dystopia driven, fundamentally, by optimism. “Aren’t young women today completely amazing? And young men too—I think we have made a better world for them than the one we experienced.”

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