Warning: some discussions of rape.
I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. It got nominated for book club a couple of times, and never quite won the vote, but several people there read it and had really good things to say, so it was definitely worth getting to… even if I was a bit slow about it. And the premise did seem intriguing.
The idea of the book is that all women come into a power when they’re about 15 years old – they can produce electric shocks, sometimes to the strength of being able to kill people. They can awaken this power in older women. The novel is about how the world changes to accommodate this, starting around now with the “Day of the Girls”, when the world becomes aware of all this, and the following few years. It’s told as a hypothetical history by someone five thousand years in the future, and we have the letters between him and a fellow author discussing it as a framing device for the bulk of the novel (and I’ll have more to say about that bit later), though it doesn’t really impact much on the story-telling. It’s very much presented as a radical interpretation of the history, though, at odds with what is canonical in that distant future.
Now, the “what if women could do something that made them more physically powerful than men, how would that change things?” notion isn’t unique, and there’s nothing wrong (and quite a lot right with it) as an idea. It’s SFF doing what it does best and challenging realities as well as providing alternatives. However. It’s a notion I think needs handling with some degree of subtlety and care. If you’re going to start making sweeping statements about gender (and I think that’s… if not inevitable then definitely a possible outcome of doing a book like this), you need to know what you’re doing and make sure you don’t stray too far into cliché. And then if you’re going to have a clear opinion of your own running through it, you need that subtlety more than ever, in order not to come across as bludgeoning the reader round the face with your views.
Spoilers, I don’t think this is a subtle book. But worse, I think at some points, the author thinks she’s being both subtler and cleverer than she’s actually achieving… which is a bit less forgivable. If she’d been clearly going for “fuck it, who needs subtlety”, then I could stand back and go “well, I don’t think this is the best way of doing things, but you’ve committed and achieved, so fair play”. And a lot of the time, she is. So, indeed, fair play. But there are times – and I think this is especially true when she’s handling religion – where she’s clearly trying to do things cleverly and not really quite getting there. And it really undermines the aims of the book as a whole, I feel.
If I’m honest, nearly all of my criticism of this book is “it is the least subtle thing ever”. If that doesn’t bother you, then you will most likely enjoy the heck out of it, and I advise you skip a lot of what I’m about to say. Maybe jump to the conclusion for the tl;dr. Otherwise, ranty time ahoy.
Though a caveat – I am going to criticise this book a lot, but I really didn’t hate it. I think I have so much to say because it feels like it was so close to being a rather good book, but misses out on it for a couple of fixable things. I didn’t love it, that is for sure, but I would probably read more Alderman if I came across it. I feel like she has more to give, and that another book, another theme, might present her to me more favourably. And I enjoyed myself at points reading it, particularly when we moved onto Roxy’s story, which I think has a lot more substance and emotional accessibility than the other stories. She’s the character I feel like I like, and who feels real to me, in a way that Allie, Margot or Tunde doesn’t really. But anyway, this is not a book I hate – I gave it 3/5 on Goodreads, and there are bits that were a 4… they were just undermined by some overarching things which are probably a 2…
So. The subtlety thing. This comes out in two major outlets – the gender stuff and the religion stuff. I’m going to gloss over the latter, mainly because I’m not really the right person to discuss it, but I’ll just say that it sat incredibly awkwardly with me the whole way through, and it felt like someone trying to do too much too quickly. She tries to have Allie create a sort of unifying super-cult, overarching all religion and it just… no. When you cast it alongside the political realism, it just doesn’t fit. And then there’s the gender stuff. I think the best place I can really critique this is in the framing letters at the beginning and end of the book (I told you I’d come back to them). It’s not really spoilers, but I’m going to discuss the end one too, so if you mind, avert your eyes presently.
Actually, I guess it is spoilers, but it’s spoilers that are pretty much solidly hinted in the opening letters, so I’m just going to run with it.
In the five thousand years in the future part of the book, we are presented with a world where women are the societally empowered gender. The first letter writer is a man, writing deferentially to a woman, also an author, wanting her help, advice and input about his book, soon due to be published. His language is meek, mild and apologetic, undermining his own abilities and praising her. Hers is dominant, often overtly sexual, and incredibly patronising. You can see what she’s doing here, yes? But she’s gone waaaay over the top with it. If you switched the genders and told me this was a real world exchange from now, I’d assume that the man was a raaaaaging misogynist, probably over 60, and completely unprofessional and inappropriate. There are parts when the female author digresses into how the descriptions of male soldiers play into many people’s sexual fantasies (including hers) in not at all oblique language. It’s just… that bit too much. It’s not that any part of it is unrealistic, were the genders swapped. It’s just that she’s dropped in way too much, so it comes off awkward and forced. The reader feels bludgeoned by it, and patronised too. It’s like Alderman doesn’t feel like we can get what she’s doing unless she spells it out piece by agonising piece. She’s got to have her female author call the male darling, suggest he write under a female name, talk about “those feisty men”*. She has the male author talk about how nonsensical it would have been for their ancestors to practise female genital mutilation, and tell the woman she’s “one of the better ones”. It’s… a lot of very realistic examples of inverted sexism, bundled together into such a big pile that it becomes a caricature. And this is emblematic of her approach throughout the book. Everything is just that bit too much.
Leaving that aside, the timeline of the book is drastically implausible**, and the author clearly has a much more cynical view than I do of how people will react when given access to power. This isn’t a criticism, but it does explain why I maybe didn’t enjoy it as much as others. I guess I’m too optimistic about how people would behave. I don’t… I guess I don’t want to assume that women, given the ability, would devolve into roving rape gangs.
I also have mixed feelings about the little voice that speaks to Allie and guides her into her role as a prophet of a world religion.
And then there’s the writing. It’s… the words that spring to mind are “competent” and “workmanlike”. If she left it as it is, this would have been fine, and I’d have let it pass without comment, because it would have stood in the background and let the story dominate instead. But Alderman feels the need to try to devolve into being poetic or pseudo-scriptural at times and… ow. It scrapes nails down the chalkboard of my soul because it just doesn’t succeed.
And lastly on the critical front… ultimately “all the girls have lightning powers” is a faintly ridiculous notion. If I had to give advice, I’d tell someone writing that to own it. Accept it’s ridiculous and run with it, commit to the ridiculousness. Alderman… hasn’t. She’s tried to pin it down with science and it just defies it, because you can’t get out of your mind how… they’re shooting lightning at each other. And it’s a valiant effort she makes, it really really is. Just a doomed one, I feel.
However, at the heart of it, Alderman is telling a good and interesting story, and one that isn’t entirely predictable. For all that she sign-posts where the ultimate ending of her tale is, you’re not really sure how you’re going to get there until you do. And a lot of what you see along the way is well worth the telling. And – and this is really a bigger thing that deserves more focus than only raising here, I guess – I have a lot of respect for her to be willing to step up and deal with the gender stuff as openly and unsubtly as she has. No, I don’t enjoy that unsubtlety. But I can respect the willingness to do it, because it is a brave thing, and a necessary one. One of the things SFF does well is to show us uncomfortable truths in metaphors, and she’s doing just this with something we all know to be very real. She doesn’t shy away from it, or try to distance herself from the darker aspects – her gaze roves around through all the multicultural problems of misogyny. And that’s a thing worthy of praise. A lot of praise. Likewise, she acknowledges more than once that gender is more complex than man and woman, and though she doesn’t go into as much detail as I’d like on that front, it was really pleasing to see her not only acknowledge it, but pay it more than lip service and try to add it to the slowly building science of her world.
So ultimately, this is a book I respect, by an author for whom I now have a lot of admiration… but a book I cannot claim to like fully, or discuss uncritically. There are a lot of problems here, some of which undermine what the book is trying to do. But what the book is trying to do is incredibly worthwhile… and that alone is enough to commend it a fair way.
*Included out of main body, because to be honest I found this bit a bit… blergh… but it is very much I think a strong example of what I’m on about. Direct quotation from framing letter at the end of the book: “Or gangs of men locking up women for sex… some of us have had fantasies like that! (Can I confess, shall I confess, that while thinking about this I… no, no, I can’t confess it.) It’s not just me though, my dear. A whole battalion of men in army fatigues or police uniforms really does make most people think of some kind of sexual fetish, I’m afraid!”
**I mean, come on, it’d take more than a couple of years to overturn the entirety of Catholic tradition and elect a female anti-pope.