By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown. 400 pp. $26.
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Naomi Alderman has written our era's Handmaid's Tale. Like Margaret Atwood's 1986 classic, The Power is an essential feminist work that terrifies and illuminates, enrages and encourages. Alderman's premise is simple, her execution endlessly inventive: Teenage girls everywhere suddenly discover their bodies can produce a deadly electrical charge.
Alderman considers how the world would adjust if women held the balance of energy and could discharge it at will. What if every interaction was predicated on female supremacy? What if men had to worry about being outshined, overpowered, raped?
The narrative moves from an American girl's bedroom to a British gang's hangout, to a European forest and beyond, tracing the way this new power surges through families and governments, singeing male pride, inflaming chauvinism, and burning the patriarchy to a crisp. Chapter by chapter, Alderman rotates among four main characters, following their adventures through societies in radical transformation. In India, Saudi Arabia, and Moldova, women riot with lightning shooting out of their hands, and men counterattack with bullets and bombs. In liberal Western countries, the transition is more measured; women are counseled to control their power and channel it in positive ways. Schools teach classes in abstinence: "Just Don't Do It."
Courtship is rewired: While making out, a nice young woman hopes she doesn't lose control and zap her date to death. That new paradigm reverberates all the way down: "Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power."
The Gospels must be reimagined. A church founded on the Father and the Son must adapt to the new supremacy of the Mother. "She has overturned heaven and earth for us," a young prophetess announces. Oh, there'll still be room for men to serve, but only in the subordinate roles appropriate for their lesser agency.
So many books - even great ones - quickly go dim, so picking one that might stay lighted for decades is a fool's errand. In this case, I'm eager to be that fool.
Ron Charles reviews books for the Washington Post.