The Power by Naomi Alderman

Most of my comments about this book stem from a discussion we had in a book club meeting last week – something which I want to talk of in itself as it’s such a great experience, but will do that in it’s own post. One thing the group definitely helped with was developing my thoughts and feelings about this specific book, and hearing the varied responses from everyone.

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In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who larks around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.

The Power is a very, very interesting book to read. Looking at a reversal in the ‘power dynamic’ between genders, it explores what would happen if teenage girls everywhere woke up one day with immense physical power and how it would change our world. Overall, I gave this book 3.5 stars because, looking back, it is a very clever book and what the author was trying to achieve was indeed very good. It explored several various issues and topics and dealt with most of them well, but there are definitely some areas in which it lacks. This discussion I will keep as spoiler free as possible for those of you wishing to read it in the future.

First off, there are four main characters we follow: a man called Tunde from Nigeria who chooses a career in journalism to document the changes in the world, a foster girl called Allie whose religious parents abuse her, a local American politician who wishes to advance in her career, and a girl from London who belongs to a family on the wrong side of the law. We follow these characters and watch as each of them are changed and affected by this phenomenon. It turns out that, whilst initially being interested in all of them, I ended up only really caring about the narrative of one towards the end. Whilst it depends on what interests you, I personally struggled to keep interested in certain character plot developments.

The opening and first third of this book is brilliant, and I devoured it rather quickly. It’s dealt with very well, from initial reactions that really don’t surprise you (the overwhelming response from some of the male population to section off these girls from the rest of society) to the small details of how boys are told not to be out too late or go out on their own. This initial section is what I found really gripping, and it is very striking in how society is presented – mainly due to the fact that the usual, commonplace phrases that girls hear all the time are switched to boys.

Yet, I find that I kept thinking – in the narratives that followed – that this book would work far better as a collection of short stories. It felt like the author was taking on far too much, and it would be better to have more focused individual stories, as there are moments when some things are mentioned in passing to the point of being worryingly underdeveloped. A few of these instances was brought up in our discussion, and one that I want to mention is the discussion on sexuality – or lack of. There is a character within the novel whose power is noted to be ‘defective’, and it just so happens that she is also mentioned to be one of the few queer characters. It also just so happens that, for a time, she dates a boy who has a chromosome deformity, which grants him the use of this power. On top of that, they meet online in a group for delinquents and, in it’s name, it uses two derogatory words that were closely associated with the gay community. Unfortunately, comments on people’s sexuality are not developed, which leaves us with evidence for anti-LGBTQ thought. For the only character who is said to be specifically queer to be ‘defective’ and not develop that sentiment sets a very dangerous precedent, and one that we overall could not support without further knowledge of the author’s intentions.

Again, without spoilers, the ending of the novel was hit and miss with us all – the general consensus being one of bewilderment and confusion. The final pages demonstrate exactly what the author is trying to do, and her final lines are brilliant, and it was those final few pages that bumped up my rating as it is a very clever idea, but perhaps one that is just not executed as well as you might want it to be.

There are a few other downfalls of the book – plenty of stereotypes of classes and accents, not to mention a main character who is said to be Nigerian at one stage but then there is no other mention of his background or culture, like he is a completely blank slate before the novel begins, and it feels as if the author had checklist with ‘black character’ on it. Besides these details, which really only stand out when you finish the book and discuss it in full detail with others, this is a very interesting and important book to read. Whilst I’m sure the author was trying to write a sort of feminist dystopian, much like the Handmaid’s Tale, it doesn’t quite come up to the expectation I held. There is also a worrying notion that this book could be used to support the argument for and against feminism, which I am 99.9% sure was not the author’s intention.

So really I leave it up to you to decide whether or not this book is one that you like. Again, overall, I did enjoy this book and would encourage others to read it – one thing’s for sure: you’ll have something to say about it. Whilst my review doesn’t sound particularly enticing, I do stress that I did end up giving it 3.5 stars, 4 on Goodreads, and there are more than plenty of people who absolutely loved this book. As always, these opinions are my own and they by no means dictate what you will or will not feel – and I’d love to hear what you think about this striking Baileys Prize nominee.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

I’m part of a Feminist Book Club, and for next month we’re reading Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, a book that I had heard of briefly but didn’t know much about. Originally classed as YA, often today you’ll find this book among adult fiction and, honestly, even at 20 I found this book so difficult to read in terms of the themes and what happens in the book. Trigger warning for this discussion, as this book deals with rape, bullying, and suicide.

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In a small town where everyone knows everyone, Emma O’Donovan is different. She is the special one – beautiful, popular, powerful. And she works hard to keep it that way. 

Until that night . . . 

Now, she’s an embarrassment. Now, she’s just a slut. Now, she is nothing.

And those pictures – those pictures that everyone has seen – mean she can never forget. 

BOOK OF THE YEAR AT THE IRISH BOOK AWARDS 2015. The award-winning, bestselling novel about the life-shattering impact of sexual assault, rape and how victims are treated.

This first part of the review is spoiler-free, and I’ll indicate when I do go into spoiler territory. To start with, this book is all about a girl from a small town in Ireland who is gang raped after drinking and taking drugs, something that she has no memory of – only pictures that the boys took of her that were uploaded to social media.

The first half of this book leads up to this event, and whilst you go in knowing what will happen at the halfway mark, you are by no means ready for what will happen. Our protagonist, Emma O’Donovan, is not a character that you will like. Part of the popular crowd at school, she is mean, vindictive, spiteful, and all-in-all a horrible person, and it is this that makes this book even worse than you can imagine. Because, as a reader, you don’t like her. But you’re with her as she goes through this traumatic event and want to fight this battle for her as people turn on her, yet part of you still remembers how awful of a person she is. It’s like a huge slap to the face, a constant reminder that it doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s done – no one deserves to be so violently assaulted, and no one ever is asking for it.

We meet Emma and her so-called ‘friends’ in the first half, hanging out, going to parties, and living their lives. Emma is known for her beauty and she prides herself on that, judging those around her by their looks. She’s a bully, and uncaring towards everyone including her friends, only interested in someone if they can give her an advantage in some way. She’s loved by her family, in some kind of way, but they too value her looks and how she compares to others – they think of her as a ‘good girl’, one who never drinks or does drugs or has sex.

When reading the scene leading up to the rape, I had to put this book down to take a breather. I would definitely recommend making sure you’re in the right frame of mind to take on this book and especially would advise taking breaks, because I personally could not take it in all in one go. The aftermath of the assault is even worse, but you join Emma a year afterwards. That is as much as I will say in terms of plot for this non-spoiler section.

It’s gutting, this piece of fiction, mainly because you know that although it’s fictional and set in a fictional town, this is happening to girls – and boys – every day. You know it’s based on real events, and as much as it sickens you, there are still people who think ‘she was asking for it’. Even today, you go on the comment sections to awful news stories about people getting raped, and you’ll  have some people still saying that the rape victim is partly to blame, that they shouldn’t have been wearing such short skirts, that they shouldn’t have been drinking, that really they’re making themselves more vulnerable and ‘what do they expect to happen?’ And these people genuinely believe what they’re saying, as if the victim is at fault and is partly to blame. Because we live in a society where rape still isn’t as black and white as it should be. A woman gets mugged and the mugger is punished. A woman gets raped and she’s asked what she was wearing. One very poignant line that got to me in this book was the comment that the rapists are innocent until proven guilty, the victim guilty until proven innocent.

This book is so important, and should be read by everyone. Rape culture is something that needs to be addressed more, especially in how we present it. We should be telling people not to rape and punishing them if they do, not telling people how not to get raped. When you look at the most typical rape cases, the victim is normally wearing something that isn’t revealing, and often it’s by someone that they know. It baffles me that we’re still trying to change these ideas people have about rape. This book, I hope, will help to change that.

*Spoilers ahead*

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One thing this book does is let you see Emma go back to school for the next days after the rape, and then we lose all contact until a year later to see the aftermath. We’re not with her for the suicide attempts, we’re not with her for the abuse she gets, we’re not with her when she starts going to therapy, we’re not with her when her parents abandon her in almost every way – so when we finally do get back, it feels like there is no hope. It feels like, for a reader, there is literally nothing to be done. All we know is that Emma, in an effort to try and make it all ‘go away’, originally played it off as nothing and then only later agreed to say it was rape. You want to burst into this book and sit her down, much like her brother and therapist, and tell her that she is not at fault. Tell her that she is not the reason she was raped. Tell her that she should demand justice. Tell her to fight.

Yet I speak from a privileged background. I have a loving supportive network of friends and family, all who would stand by me and, most importantly, believe me if I told them I had been assaulted. It’s easy to say that I would fight for justice when I haven’t been assaulted, so it’s killing to watch someone – character or not – go through such agony only to fall. What makes it worse is that Emma recognises that when she was unconscious, those four boys assaulting her was rape, but before – when she has sex with Paul and is slightly drunk, when she doesn’t want to have sex and he ignores her – she doesn’t classify as rape.

The fact that her friend/rival Jamie was raped a year before the start of this book makes you feel even more inclined to dislike Emma. We know that Emma was the one to tell her not to say anything, and it’s almost, almost, understandable when Jamie turns on Emma.

The fact that this book ends with Emma telling her family that she wants to retract her statement, that she doesn’t want to go through with it, almost had me in tears. And when her mother and father smile at her afterwards, like they’re proud as if she won’t be the ‘raped girl’ anymore? Nearly destroyed me. Her own mother says the line ‘they’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand’.

This book is utterly heart-wrenching, gutting, soul-destroying, and at the same time exactly as it should be. You’ll find so many discussions about this book and the subject matter, and I for one would highly recommend listening to ‘The Banging Book Club’ podcast. They cover this book in their first episode, and it’s great to listen to other people discussing this challenging book.