UK Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Science fiction, feminism, literary fiction
There will be some spoilers in this review.
I was excited to read this book when I heard about the premise – women developing the power to control electricity, changing the balance of power within society as we knew it. I was even more excited when it won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, as I had really enjoyed the previous year’s winner (The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney).
So when I discovered that the University I work at was giving away copies as part of their Fresher’s Welcome initiative, I immediately scrambled to get one. I finally got around to reading it this month.
It wasn’t what I had hoped for. In fact, I would like to emphasise that this book contains extremely triggering material, particularly within the second half of the narrative.
For the first half of the book, I mostly found the narrative quite slow and dense, and perhaps this is because I don’t often read literary fiction. It deals with the sudden arrival of this power, and how suddenly society shifts in reaction as it spreads. Despite struggling to settle into the pace of the novel, I enjoyed seeing vulnerable women and girls able to rise up and fight back against their abusers – a girl killing her sexually abusive foster father, sex slaves liberating themselves, women rising up in India and the Middle East to protest sexual violence and oppression.
By the second half… things take a turn for the brutal, and this new society sees women degrading men and committing acts of aggression and sexual violence. This is mirrored by the rise of Men’s Rights Activist groups and the sorts of men you find on ‘red pill’ message boards resorting to domestic terrorism to try and overthrow the Matriarchy.
It seems like the women become more like men, so men react by becoming even more aggressive to compensate, and the world quickly spirals into nuclear armageddon. Literally.
To begin with I found the book inspiring and empowering, but whilst I understand that the concept could not lead to necessarily a straightforward peace as such, I found the spiral really quite extreme. Whilst I can see a little of what the author was trying to do – in demonstrating the degrading behaviour which women endure, but having it enacted on men, she is trying to draw attention to how horrific, brutal, or ridiculous these incidents are by reversing the genders. The novel is bookended by emails between Alderman and ‘Neil’, the alleged author, and presented as a novelised history of society prior to a great catastrophe which led to current society. The emails imply that society is now Matriarchal, but the emails are designed to highlight casual sexism in approaches to history and conversations between genders, and instead read more like aggressive excerpts from The Man Who Has It All.
Whilst I can see what Alderman is trying to do – refuting ideas that women are innately more gentle than man, subverting stereotypes and demonstrating the continual barrage of microaggressions and power imbalances – I didn’t enjoy this book. It’s bleak, and bloodthirsty. There are few likeable characters, everyone’s motivations become more questionable as the story unfolds, and it appears that should women gain any sort of power within society, something with which to defend themselves and level the playing field, instead it will inevitably lead to the downfall of society and destruction of the human race.
Perhaps I am being unfair, but the further through the book I got, the more I found I had to keep stopping because the narrative became uncomfortable for me. That it likely to be the point of the book, because these topics aren’t comfortable, and it is only that this kind of violence is so prevalent against women that perhaps as a species we have become somewhat inured to it – but I don’t like reading about sexual violence at all. The idea that violence in a book isn’t enough unless it is sexual violence is something I dislike in fiction, and it has been raised more and more recently. Is this different because the bulk of the violence is against men? Doubtful – most third wave feminists push for representation of and support for male victims of sexual violence too, I can’t think that many would be happy to see this representation.
No, women aren’t all perfect, whilst all men aren’t all monsters, but this feels like it treats both sides with a very violently cynical brush, and it didn’t make for a comfortable read.
- Whilst the core concept and opening half of the book are interesting, the latter half becomes extremely brutal and unpleasant.
- There is a lot of triggering material in this book, particularly in terms of abuse and sexual violence.
- There is a strange section with an internal voice, who throughout the book seems to be a symptom particular to one character, but then towards the end may be implied to be Satan or God? That strange aside didn’t fit comfortably for me.
- The whole book is uncomfortable. It’s like Difficult Women turned up to 90. But at the same time, I can see what it is trying to do, and perhaps if you don’t have triggers it may be worth a read to get a very visceral experience of a rising Matriarchal society, and protest against women as stereotypically gentle and nurturing.
Rating: 2/3 – I nearly gave it higher because I feel like as a work of feminist literature perhaps it is important in its own right, and can see what Alderman was trying to do. But in the end, I felt uncomfortable reading it, and there were people I had recommended it to based on the first half who I had to hastily contact and rescind my recommendations because of the sheer amount of violence in the latter half.