Book Notes: The Power by Naomi Alderman

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Book Notes: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

Publisher : Little, Brown and Company (2016)

ISBN-13: 978-0316547611

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐



“The Power” is structured as a retelling of events that occurred 5,000 years ago, and describes a period of about ten years that preceded an unknown global event, labeled as “The Cataclysm”. However, the story itself is set in our contemporary world, somewhere during the 21st century. In this retelling, through a genetic mutation, young girls and women acquire the power to generate and wield powerful electric currents from their fingers. With varying degrees of intensity, the electric currents confer a biological advantage to women that upends conventional gender power dynamics. The world is turned upside down with this inversion of physical power.


Allison “Allie” Montgomery-Taylor/Mother Eve

Allie begins the novel as a 16-year old girl of mixed-race, and a product of numerous foster homes. She is frequently physically beaten and raped  by her current foster father. Allie hears a voice in her head that provides her with guidance and suggestions. Allie eventually uses her power to become the global leader of a powerful religious order that preaches that God is a woman and rewrites Scripture to emphasize the female figures in various religions. She also discovers a way to use the power to manipulate the electric currents in the brain, giving her a form of mild mind or muscle control over others.

Roxanne “Roxy” Monke

The illegitimate daughter of a London crime boss, Roxy is 14 when the book opens with her witnessing the murder of her mother. Roxy becomes one of the most powerful wielders of the power, is friends with Allie, and becomes an influential and wealthy businesswoman by smuggling Glitter, (a new drug that enhances the strength of women’s power), weapons, and other supplies around the world..

Olatunde “Tunde” Edo

Tunde is 21 years old when the book starts. He is a handsome Nigerian photo-journalist who becomes famous by documenting and reporting on the unraveling situation of the power around the world.

Margot Cleary

Margot is the mayor of an unnamed city. She has two daughters – Jocelyn and Maddie, whom she shares custody of with her ex-husband. Margot sees the power as an opportunity to elevate her profile and gain more political authority. She is later elected Governor, and then US Senator.

Jocelyn Cleary

Margot’s daughter, Jocelyn is trained by the NorthStar training camps to become a soldier, but is unable to gain full control over her power. She longs to be normal, ie., one of the women who can fully control and direct her power, and is often in conflict with her mother. She is stationed in Bessapara with the army of women from the NorthStar camps.

Tatiana Moskalev

The wife of Victor Moskalev, President of Moldova. After his death from a “heart atack” (that she might have been responsible for), Tatiana is appointed as the interim President. She is deposed in a military coup, which then sets off a civil war, with the military on one side, and women loyal to Tatiania on the other. She declares a new Kingdom, Bessapara, with a radical vision of female totalitarian supremacy.

Bernie Monke

A London crime boss. He is married to Barbara, but has an affair that leads to Roxy’s birth. He is violent and ruthless, and seeks to find ways to profit out of the novel’s events.

Barbara Monke

Roxy’s stepmother, and the mother of Ricky, Darrell, and Terry.

Terry Monke

The oldest son, Terry is killed in a raid trying to avenge the killing of Roxy’s mother.

Darrell Monke

Darrell is Roxy’s younger half brother. He is envious and covetous of the power wielded by Roxy and other women.

Ricky Monke

Ricky is Roxy’s middle brother. He is raped by a group of women who use their power to sexually assault him. The incident leaves him diminished and no longer able to participate in or take over  his father’s criminal empire.

Mr Montgomery-Taylor

Allie’s abusive foster father. He is a highly religious businessman who owns a meat-packing company with centres in Jacksonville, Albany and Statesboro. He frequently beats and rapes Allie, and she eventually  kills him during one of his sexual assaults.

Neil Adam Armon

Neil is the fictional author of “The Power” and sends over a copy of his new book to Naomi Alderman for her to review. The events of “The Power” are bookended by letters between Neil and Naomi about the manuscript and its implications for society. His name “Neil Adam Armon” is an anagram for “Naomi Alderman”.

Naomi Alderman

A fictionalized version of Alderman herself, she is an author who reviews and offers comments about Neil’s book. She is fairly condescending in her comments to Neil.


“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” (9)

In her 2011 hit song, “Run the World? (Girls)”, Beyonce’s answer to the question of “Who runs the world?” is “Girls”. The song was hugely popular, and was adopted as a feminist anthem; but it’s an ironic statement because it is palpably not true. In our current society, most political, economic, religious, and social authority is primarily wielded by men. Our political leaders, CEOs, entrepreneurs, religious clergy, teachers, soldiers, sports stars, writers, musicians, artists, etc, are all, predominantly, male. What would the world look like if women did, indeed, truly run the world?

“The Power” examines the notion of power, gender, violence, and corruption. Alderman uses the inversion of traditional gender roles to explore the nature of power, how it can corrupt and corrode those, men and women alike, who wield or seek to attain it.

The novel explores many of the challenges facing women around the world today by providing a mirror society in which men become the gender facing those same problems. For instance, it explores contemporary Saudi Arabia, where women are required to seek permission from their male guardians for activities like driving a car, getting a job, travelling, or getting married. “‘Thus, we institute today this law, that each man in the country must have his passport and other official documents stamped with the name of his female guardian. Her written permission will be needed for any journey he undertakes.” (279) It also uses the reversal of contemporary traditional gender roles to explore issues of sexual and domestic violence that are viewed as “normal” today..

Throughout the book, Alderman essentially is asking the question, “What would the world look like if women were more physically powerful than men? What would happen and what would we accept as “normal”?  What changes when the balance of power between men and women is inverted, and women are granted a seemingly minor biological advantage due to a genetic quirk? What changes when the power dynamics between the sexes is inverted? And, perhaps, more implicitly, what doesn’t change?

“The Power” argues that much of society is implicitly structured around physical power. It argues that the ability to cause physical hurt and pain is at the fundamental core of society, and that ability can be transformed in political, religious, social, and economic power. And, given that our society is structured the way it is, as a patriarchy because of this biological quirk of nature, there is no real reason why women wouldn’t behave the same if suddenly granted a biological advantage over men.

Power is its own thing.

“Nothing that either of these men says is really of any great significance, because she could kill them in three moves …. It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”  (84)

Allie, in particular, would like to create a new religious narrative with female supremacy as the reigning ideology. She wants to end the era of male dominance and render it a myth or speculative fantasy. “There is a thought in those days. It is that five thousand years is not a very long time. Something has been started now that must find its conclusion. When a person has taken a wrong turn, must she not retrace her steps, is that not wise? After all, we’ve done it before. We can do it again. Different this time, better this time. Dismantle the old house and begin again.” (367)

The novel counts down to a global cataclysm. The details around the cataclysm are unclear, but it’s suggested that chemical weapons, EMPs, and nuclear weapons were involved. In order to establish a permanent legacy of female supremacy, prevent men from trying to claw back their former dominance, and perhaps profit from the chaos, Allie and Margot incite global war. They aim to bomb society back to the Stone Age, but with women as more powerful this time around. “‘And then there will be five thousand years of rebuilding, five thousand years where the only thing that matters is: can you hurt more, can you do more damage, can you instil fear?’  (353)

From the letters (five thousand years later), between Neil and Naomi that bookend the events in “The Power”, it appears Allie, Margot, and their followers succeed at this goal.  Society has been rebuilt with women in charge and Mother Eve has become the central figure in a matriarchal religion.

You tried to keep a leopard as a pet, didn’t you, you fucking idiot, and you know what happens then. Teeth at the throat, blood everywhere, got what you deserved, messing with a leopard. They don’t change their spots, Roxy, or is that cheetahs, either way.”  (272)

It’s a dark view of humanity. Man or woman, matriarchy or patriarchy, it doesn’t matter. The capacity for violence is in all of us. That is an aspect of humanity that never changes. Leopards don’t change their spots.


Gender Roles and Reversals

….We don’t have to ask what they’d do if they were in control. We’ve seen it already. It’s worse than this.”  (264)

“The Power” inverts gender roles. Women become the more physically powerful gender through their ability to manipulate electric currents. Having become the physically weaker gender, it is now men who are afraid to walk the streets at night. Or by themselves. It is now men afraid of large groups of women. “When he walked past a group of women on the road – laughing and joking and making arcs against the sky – Tunde said to himself, I’m not here, I’m nothing, don’t notice me, you can’t see me, there’s nothing here to see.” (299)

But the animal part of himself was afraid. There is a part in each of us which holds fast to the old truth: either you are the hunter or you are the prey. Learn which you are. Act accordingly. Your life depends upon it.” (301)

It is now men who have to live with the weight of the fear of possible violence that could be inflicted upon them at any time and for no reason.  “Already there are parents telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far.” (27)

  • Men are no longer permitted to drive cars. Men are no longer permitted to own businesses. Foreign journalists and photographers must be employed by a woman. Men are no longer permitted to gather together, even in the home, in groups larger than three, without a woman present. pg. 279
  • Men are no longer permitted to vote – because their years of violence and degradation have shown that they are not fit to rule or govern. pg. 279
  • A woman who sees a man flouting one of these laws in public is not only permitted but required to discipline him immediately. Any woman who fails in this duty will be considered an enemy of the state, an accessory to the crime, one who attempts to undermine the peace and harmony of the nation. pg. 280

There is a strain of contemporary thought that posits that women would be better leaders than men, because they are less violent, more maternal, and less aggressive. In an inversion of this assumption, Naomi references this in her letter to Neil when she observes, “I feel instinctively – and I hope you do, too – that a  world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing.” (371) It assumes that a world led by empowered women would produce a more peaceful and less violent society. “The Power” turns this assumption on its head.

What if power is more complicated? What if there was nothing innately peaceful or maternal or nurturing about the female sex? What if it all came down to thousands of years of social conditioning brought about by the biological advantage that physical strength has conferred to men? What would then happen if something came along that made women permanently stronger than men? What would the world look like? How would society be arranged? Would women do a better job with power?

But, perhaps, we are asking the wrong questions…

“… Maybe you’ll understand it and maybe you won’t. Your whole question is the mistake. Who’s the serpent and who’s the Holy Mother? Who’s bad and who’s good? Who persuaded the other one to eat the apple? Who has the power and who’s powerless? All of these questions are the wrong question….The voice says: There’s never been a right choice, honeybun. The whole idea that there are two things and you have to choose is the problem.” (360-361)

Five thousand years after the events of “The Power”, the writers Neil and Naomi live in a society that looks very much like our current one, except that is matriarchal, as opposed to the patriarchal society in which we (the readers) currently live. Naomi is surprised and amused by the notion of “male soldiers, male police officers, and boy crime gangs”.

Stories, Narrative, and Perspective

“Beneath every story, there is another story. There is a hand within the hand …There is a blow behind the blow.” (357)

There are three main characters who demonstrate the importance of stories and story-telling, and who gets to control the narrative – Tunde, Neil, and Allie.

Tunde documents the global uprisings and explains the situation to his audience. However, ultimately, his masterpiece – a book about the global uprising by women is stolen by Nina, a fellow journalist and his former lover, who claims credit for his work. Tunde is essentially written out of the narrative, and his work is stolen by someone more powerful than him, a woman. He becomes an inverted example of the ways in which women have had their work stolen or gone uncredited in our real world, and an example of whose voices are heard, respected, and part of our myths and narratives.

“It was his essay. His photographs. Stills from his footage. His words and his ideas and his analysis. It was paragraphs from the book he’d left with Nina for safekeeping, along with parts of the journals he’d posted to her. Her name was on the photographs, and her name was on the writing. Tunde was mentioned nowhere. She had stolen it from him entirely. “(304)

The Power is framed by letters between Neil and Naomi Alderman, discussing his manuscript about the events that led to the cataclysm.. Naomi approves of Neil’s book, but advises him to adopt a female pen name.

“You’ve explained to me how anything you do is framed by your gender, that the frame is as inescapable as it is nonsensical. Every book you write is assessed as part of ‘men’s literature’. So what I’m suggesting is just a response to that, really, nothing more. But there’s a long tradition of men who’ve found a way out of that particular bind. You’d be in good company….Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?” (377) This is a wickedly funny reminder of the ways in which female writers in our contemporary society have been marginalized, and often had to adopt male pen names in order to become more widely read and appreciated.

Allie also takes control of the religious narrative. Under her guidance, the religious order she starts begins to revise the Scriptures, emphasizing female figures in religious history and editing out the parts that do not conform to her vision of female dominance. She is ultimately successful.

“All the books we have from before the Cataclysm have been re-copied hundreds of times. That’s a lot of occasions for errors to be introduced. And not just errors. All of the copyists would have had their own agendas. For more than two thousand years, the only people re-copying were nuns in convents. I mean, why would they re-copy works that said that men used to be stronger and women weaker? That would be heresy, and they’d be damned for it.” (374)

Faith & Religion

The theme of the power of faith and religion is most embodied in the character of Allie. Adopting the persona of “Mother Eve”, Allie uses fake miracles to begin creating a new religious order, with her as its leader and prophet. As “Mother Eve”, Allie manipulates people, kills those who oppose her religious teachings, performs temporary “cures” she claims are from the Divine, and twists aspects of Christianity to conform to her own preferred ideology. Women, having acquired the power, are more apt to accept this new form of faith in which God is a woman.

  • Eve says, ‘So I teach a new thing. This power has been given to us to lay straight our crooked thinking. It is the Mother not the Son who is the emissary of Heaven. We are to call God “Mother”. God the Mother came to earth in the body of Mary, who gave up her child that we could live free from sin. God always said She would return to earth. And She has come back now to instruct us in her ways.’ pg. 92

The Corrosive and Corrupting Effects of Power

“All over the world people are going crazy about this thing, but a few people always look at anything and go, ‘Where’s the profit in this, and where’s the advantage?’  “(56) .

In the beginning, women wield power and use it to seek justice and right past wrongs. Allie uses it to kill her rapist foster father. Women use it to escape  physical bondage and sexual trafficking. Young girls use it to save themselves from harassment. Other women use it to improve their professional careers and gain promotions. But, eventually, the power corrupts their morals, and the women begin to use power more indiscriminately, decadently, and corruptly.

For instance, Allie’s goal of seeking a place of safety and refuge transforms her into a power-hungry religious leader who wants to own the world. “The voice says to Allie: Remember, sweetheart, the only way you’re safe is if you own the place. Allie says: Can I own the whole world?” (142)

Margot transforms from a competent mayor into a corrupt US Senator who uses and manipulates her children, seeks to profit from global war, engages in inappropriate on-the-job sexual relations with subordinates, and abuses her (electoral) power. ****She transforms into someone who seeks power for all the wrong reasons.

Does she want it? Is she hungry for it? Why does she want it? ….She thinks of Jos and how she’d be able to help her if she had more power and influence. She thinks of the state and how she’d be able to change things for the better. But, as her fingers grip the cardboard podium and the charge begins to build across her collarbone almost involuntarily while she speaks, the real reason is that she can’t stop thinking of the look she’d see on Daniel’s face if she got it. She wants it because she wants to knock him down.” (180)

Tatiana embarks on a policy of male repression, initiating a series of laws that impede male freedom and autonomy. She transforms Bessapara, her separatist section of Moldova, into one in which men can be mistreated, abused, or killed at random, with no repercussions for the female perpetrators. “Tunde is told more than once that the police here no longer investigate the murder of men; that if a man is found dead it is presumed that a vengeance gang had given him his proper reward for his deeds in the time before.” (278)

She also personally mistreats her male servants, going so far as to force a waiter who interrupts her to lick up broken glass. “‘Just like a man,’ she says. ‘Does not know how to be silent, thinks we always want to hear what he has to say, always talking talking talking, interrupting his betters.’” (263).

Power & Violence

“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” (9)

The novel begins in violence – the murder of Roxy’s mom –  and ends in violence – the global war that leads to the cataclysm that resets society back into the Stone Age. One is instigated by men, the other by women, and in the middle is madness. The whole book explores the theme of power and the nature of violence, and what happens to the people who possess power.

“‘Now they will know,’ shouts one woman into Tunde’s camera, ‘that they are the ones who should not walk out of their houses alone at night. They are the ones who should be afraid.’” (155)

The Power explores the idea that male behavior in our current contemporary society is a learned behavior and a choice. In our society, men have the power to inflict violence on women; some choose to exercise it, and others do not. And the freedom to exercise that power or not is, itself, a form of power. The powerless cannot choose.

For instance, Margot finds her new power liberating, even when she chooses not to use it. “The thought makes her laugh again. She finds she’s doing that more often now, just laughing. There’s a sort of constant ease, as if it’s high summer all the time inside her.”  (75)  Within the ability to exercise a choice, to choose to exercise power or not, resides freedom and autonomy. “It’s enough for her to know, sitting in there in the dark, that if she really wanted to she could get out. The knowledge is as good as freedom.” (10).

And, other women choose to commit what would essentially be war crimes:

“There is no sense in what is done here this day. There is no territory to be gained, or a particular wrong to be avenged, or even soldiers to be taken. …They offer one man a choice between keeping his arms or his legs. He chooses legs, but they break their bargain. They know that no one cares what happens here. No one is here to protect these people, and no one is concerned for them. The bodies might lie in this wood for a dozen years and no one would come this way. They do it because they can.” (323)

Sexual Assault

Alderman doesn’t shy away from this aspect of power. In the beginning, Allie’s foster father uses his power over her to abuse and rape her. Women are sold into sexual slavery.

But, once the tables are turned, men also become subject to sexual assault and domestic violence.

  • She doesn’t roll into a ball. She doesn’t beg him to stop. She knows it only makes it go on longer. He pushes her knees apart. His hand is at his belt. He’s going to show her what kind of a little whore she is. As if he hadn’t shown her many times in the past. pg. 38
  • Ricky kept very still until it was over, and didn’t say nothing and didn’t do nothing. Just waited for it to be done. pg. 225
  • Roxy knows why they haven’t called Bernie home. He’d hate Ricky for this, even if he tried not to. This is not what happens to a man. Except now it is. pg. 225

Top Quotes

  • The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet. pg. 9
  • It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth. pg. 84
  • As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women … that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? Just asking the question. pg. 372
  • The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent and the only important thing was – could you and your kin jolt harder? pg. 376
  • But we don’t have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we’ve based our ideas on. Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there. pg. 376