Book Review: The Power

9780670919963The Power is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, and it won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  Science fiction novels don’t normally appeal to me, but the complex gender dynamics and dystopian vision of a gender-switched future sounded interesting, so I read it on holiday and found it a fascinating read. Firstly, it’s well-written, which is obviously what you’d expect from a Professor of Creative Writing; but more than that, it’s able to switch between subtle and tub-thumping, creating a web of complicated and unexpected threads of a speculative future. Other dystopias by feminist writers (Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter spring to mind) are more of a blunt instrument, I think; The Power responds to some of the concerns of the twenty-first century in a way which is not fixed but shifts throughout the novel. Entertainingly, the novel is framed by letters from a (fictional) male author to ‘Naomi Alderman’ asking what she thinks of this novel which purports to tell a ‘new’ version of women’s rise to power; her advice, at the end, is that it’s hard to believe men were ever that strong, and that perhaps, to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘men’s literature’, he might consider using a female pseudonym.

Power corrupts. We are all increasingly aware of this, and politics, social and cultural structures,and everything that builds up most societies is based on patriarchal power, 4000the understanding from time immemorial that men are stronger physically and therefore men have the power; the threat of violence towards women, if not actually violence, underlies the patriarchy. What happens if women have a power which makes them more of a threat? At first, it’s a few teenage girls realising that they have a tingling sensation which becomes greater as they become angry (at men who attack them or their family): there is a direct correlation in the novel between the development of women’s power and their ill-treatment at the hands of men. These pubescent girls begin to realise they can do harm with this power, and from there it grows. The novel traces the development of this female power across the world, as women learn to fight back.

Like all good sci-fi, The Power gives a reason for this electricity (a liquid called Guardian Angel which was put in drinking water during WW2, and became part of the water cycle, intended to protect humans from gas attacks, but with an unintended consequence for women only), but the reason is almost irrelevant (though it does indicate the potential dangers of chemical alterations to the human body). The point is that young women develop a ‘skein’ across their collarbones which is the source of their electrical power which can maim or kill (or light candles, or tickle). Older women’s power can be ignited by younger women, and it becomes clear that ‘the power’ is metaphorical: in the early stages of the book, it seems a feminist trope, an indication of a much needed redress of the balance of power. The growth of female power is accompanied by the development Power-190x300of other social structures, however: despite attempts by masculine powers to repress or control it, women slowly gain political power, in one case setting up a women-only state, or developing a matriarchal religion. These developments are told through the stories of particular figures in different situations across the world, and thrown into relief by the story of a young man, Tunde, whose videos of early electrical attacks go viral and make him a sought-after reporter. At first the women see him as on their side; later, as his fear grows, it becomes startlingly clear to the reader how the balance of power has shifted completely, with men in fear of their lives.

The three main female characters indicate the ways in which individual situations contribute to a global reversal of power, building up slowly until it is an unstoppable tide. Allie has escaped (and killed) her abusive foster-father when the power came upon her, and she reinvents herself as a female prophet, with her own religion of female power. Margot is an American mayor looking for ways to advance her career in a male-dominated, inhospitable political environment, and Roxy is the daughter of a London gangland leader whose mother is murdered in front of her. They s-a3152730912b99a5f04ff88260dbb596194430deall have reasons for using power to their own ends, and at first it’s easy to sympathise when girls who have been victims of male power find their own strength and fight back. Quickly, though, it becomes extreme; and although little here has not been seen in the world before with the gender roles reversed – men are afraid to go out at night, men are considered to be dependent on women, men are inferior, etc – nonetheless it is shocking. And what is perhaps most shocking is the way that this approach explodes myths. Women have to be strong because they need to protect their children, the new argument goes; men aren’t really necessary. Men aren’t built for strength and speed, women are: the ultimate message of the novel is not that men and women are different, but that they are, ultimately, the same – they are corruptible. Power goes to women’s heads in the novel, just as men have been drunk on it for millennia, abusing and repressing women simply because they can.

Book review: Isabel’s Skin

20140611-022711-pm-52031915.jpgA while ago I was sent Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson to review, and have finally got round to reading it. It’s a Gothic story which begins with an antiquarian book valuer, in the best tradition of the tales of MR James, who comes across a screaming woman, Isabel, as he visits a remote country house to value a library. The novel also has echoes of The Woman in Black, as the hero, David, arrives to find the locals warning him of the bad atmosphere of the place, and is met by a mysterious and unwelcoming housekeeper. Next, we meet a mad scientist, Professor Hunt, who plays God with human lives. David becomes entangled with the woman whose life Hunt is playing with, and his own life is permanently changed by his encounter and subsequent desire to rescue Isabel.

The blurb describes it as ‘a slick Gothic tale in the English tradition, a murder mystery and a tour of Edwardian England’. Two of these descriptions are certainly true, but it’s not a murder mystery; though there is a murder, there is no mystery about it as we know the killer and the motive before it even happens. It’s certainly in the Gothic tradition, though – as I’ve suggested, it’s difficult to read the novel without recalling other Edwardian Gothic tales, though it often lacks the depths of these forebears. It is, however, mostly well-written, evoking the rural surroundings in beautiful, descriptive prose, though lacking any real way of connecting the natural world to the very unnatural doings of Professor Hunt. Occasionally a word jars in the otherwise nicely-crafted, old-fashioned prose (including overuse of the word ‘yelled’), but this is not too much of a problem. What is more of an issue is the lack of plot and of overall ideas; it’s easy to see what will happen next, removing any suspense, and the book ambles along missing opportunities to add depth and meaning (for example, relating the works of philosophy which are referenced to the plight of Isabel).

At first I was anxious to find out what Morris would find, and read eagerly, but sadly this feeling evaporates. Nonetheless, what has actually happened to Isabel’s skin is in the style of Victorian and Edwardian thrillers – melodramatic, excessive, and edging towards sci-fi, so if you want to find out more, do read it. It’s not a bad book, and it plays with some ideas of traditional Gothic, and the writing style is pleasant, but I’m afraid I was a little disappointed.

The Return of the Soldier

GrandpaAs one can hardly fail to notice, 2014 commemorates the centenary of the start of the Great War, and already books, exhibitions and television programmes on the subject abound. Many take a rather sentimentalised view of it, and already the revisionists are out in force, but for many, I suspect, it’s not a matter of great interest – after all, the grainy footage and antiquated photos make it seem like such a long time ago. And yet, a hundred years isn’t long – I remember my great-grandmother telling me that she remembered the zeppelins over London during WW1, and I recently discovered that my grandfather fought in the trenches, and lost two brothers in the war. Sadly, I don’t know any more than that about his war experiences, though I have recently obtained a lovely photo of him (left). He was one of the unlucky ones to be caught up in both world wars, though he survived both, but he never talked about it.

I have been pondering women’s fiction on the war. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth has long been a favourite book of mine, for its honesty about the reality of war for women on the homefront, and this week I have re-read Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier. West’s debut novel was published before the end of the war, and as such offers an unusual perspective on the returning soldier. Christopher Baldry returns from the Front badly shell-shocked – and as a result, he cannot remember his wife Kitty, who waits for him in their stylish house with his cousin Jenny, but has lost fifteen years of his lifuntitlede. In Chris’s mind, he is still in love with Margaret, a woman he had once hoped to marry, but who was now married to another man. The central episode of the novel is Chris’s and Margaret’s recollections of a pre-war period, when they were young and fell in love. They met on an island pub in the Thames, owned by her father, and this frames their time together as isolated from the evils of the world and the war, both in the past and in the liminal space of the island, which seems almost enchanted in their memories. Though, as several books have pointed out recently, notably 1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson, the pre-war period was hardly as golden and peaceful as it is now imagined, there is no doubt that for writers as well as others the peace-time period was recalled as blissful in contrast to the horrors of the war.

West’s novel removes the reader and the soldier from the war itself, which barely intrudes on the novel: we see almost none of the action, but instead wait, with Kitty and Jenny, for Chris’s homecoming, and observe his illness. Yet, as Jenny points out, he is happy: he has forgotten the worries which come with responsibility, of maintaining a large estate, of a wife, and a young son who died, and instead is immersed in the no-longer-young, unattractive figure of Margaret, who to him is still a beautiful young woman. Jenny ponders the question of whether ‘cure’ is the right word: what Chris is suffering from, she concludes, is not madness, but sanity: he has retreated into the past in his mind in order to escape the memories of the atrocities he has witnessed. Ultimately, though, ‘truth’ must be attained, and ‘sanity’ returned, and Chris is cured – yet an ambiguity hangs over this cure, as though it were the wrong outcomWeste. In the context of what we now know about the illness and shock suffered by returning soldiers, Chris’s cure seems too easy and too quick, compared with that discussed in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for example, but in a literary sense West’s novel raises some interesting questions about the purposes of psychiatry and the ‘problem’ of madness in a world which seems insane.

This is a novel which explores surfaces and depths with some subtlety. Chris’s home is beautifully furnished and managed by Kitty, yet it has changed, and on his return he seems to neither remember nor like these changes, preferring the house as it was before its makeover. Kitty herself seems a trivial creature, more concerned with her appearance than her mind, conscious of her beauty and its effects, yet silently mourning the death of her child. In contrast, Margaret is aging, poorly-dressed and seen as an embarrassment, yet as the cryptic narrator, Jenny, comes to see, she has an inner beauty that is the most radiant aspect of the novel. And Chris, whilst physically unharmed and just as he was, is bemused by how he and Jenny have aged, being locked inside his own mind and memories. This disjunction – between past and present, inner and outer – is provoked by reaction to the war, where nothing can be as it seems and the world is literally turned upside down. Though West’s novel is hardly the most realistic depiction of the war, the homefront or of shellshock, it exemplifies some very important approaches to twentieth-century cultural thought, showing the reader how the reality of war leads to an unreality of mind.

Book Review: Unexploded

141_Alison%20MacLeod-UnexplodedMy fourth novel from the Man Booker Prize longlist is Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded. Now I must confess to a general fascination with fiction set in the Home Front during WWII, but it is mostly nostalgic, or clichéd, or poorly written, or all three. It is also a subject that has been done to death, so a novel needs to be beautifully written and offer something fresh by way of both plot and approach in order to stand out in this area (such as Sarah Waters’ novel The Night Watch). I wanted to like Unexploded so much that I was afraid I would be disappointed – but I wasn’t. Unexploded is set in Brighton in the early years of the war, and focuses on the lives of Evelyn Beaumont, her husband Geoffrey, a banker, and her eight-year-old son, Philip. After the fall of Paris, Brighton is expecting German invasion any day, and amid the heat and tension of the summer of 1940, MacLeod perfectly captures the simmering, unexploded problems of the Beaumonts’ marriage. Later, as winter comes, the weather again affects and reflects the novel’s events in a literary style which I find very satisfying.

In many ways this novel couples the relationship of Geoffrey and Evelyn with the war itself, with the central metaphor of what is ‘unexploded’ relating to the bombs, the marriage and several other issues besides – some of which do explode during the novel, and some of which don’t. This could be trite, but in this novel it isn’t. MacLeod handles the personal and international crises deftly, and the tension of both situations reaches a crisis when Evelyn meets a troubled German Jew, Otto, in the Camp for which her husband has become responsible. Perhaps Otto serves too much as an escape route for Evelyn rather than a character in his own right, but one feels a great deal of sympathy for him, and for the terrible experiences he has had; he is a sensitively-drawn character whose existence also emphasises the A visit to the chaotician … Alison MacLeod.anti-Semitic feeling that was also rife in Britain at the time. Characters are often revealed to be less pleasant than one expects, and a pulsing vein of xenophobia underlies much of the characters’ motivations.

This is a tightly-structured novel, both in terms of plot and also the way it is written – lyrical and often beautiful, some of the things described are also terrible, such as Otto’s experiences at Sachsenhausen, and a memorable description of what happens when a house takes a direct hit from a bomb. The atmosphere of fear is one which is antithetical to the cosy nostalgia so many novels display towards this period – this feels real, visceral and frightening. Nothing appears in the novel without a reason, leaving me with the feeling that MacLeod is a novelist one can trust – there are no red herrings, no pointless encounters, objects or descriptions – it is all directed, focused and exciting.

Wartime BrightonThe novel’s lyricism, occasionally verging on stream-of-consciousness, owes something to Virginia Woolf, who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Evelyn is a keen reader of Woolf, and in a moment of defiance she slips away one afternoon to hear Woolf lecture. Though we only hear parts of it through Evelyn, reducing it to snippets which reverberate in her mind about truth to oneself, the echoes are convincing and the references to Woolf significant. There is, perhaps, something Mrs Dalloway-esque about Evelyn, the housewife trying to conform as she looks after her son and the house, battling with her emotions and searching for meaning.

The myths of heroism, of neighbourliness and stoicism which began during the war and have been perpetuated since, are exploded in Unexploded. Philip’s friend Orson has a brother who is fighting, Hal, the hero, who turns out to be anything but a hero, while the persecuted Otto is not an uncomplicatedly sympathetic character. Nor is Geoffrey quite the good but dull man he first seems, and it is this tendency towards mining the depths of characters, combined with ironic quoting of the edicts of the day which subverts any nostalgic glow into something much more genuine and believable. There is a symmetry to the plot which feels unforced, and a journey of discovery of both the past and the present which concludes in an open-ended way without leaving the reader unsatisfied.