I often read quotes on book jackets and find them either so generic as to be useless, or the book doesn’t live up to the billing. In this case, Margaret Atwood’s quote is entirely apt.
It happens slowly at first, but across the world teenage girls are discovering that they have a new ability. Their bodies can generate electricity which can be discharged through their fingers. It is then discovered that younger girls can awaken this power in the older generations. Most women have a ‘skein’, the newly discovered body part which generates the power. Men do not have it, apart from a few with chromosomal differences. This novel explores the theory that it is men’s physical abilities that have resulted in our patriarchal society, and looks at what might therefore happen if the tables were turned.
The story is narrated via four main characters: Roxy, daughter of a gangster, who uses her powers to take revenge on the men who killed her mother; Allie, a mixed race child in care who escapes an abusive foster family; Margot, mayor and mother; and Tunde, a young man who forges a career in journalism by travelling the world in search of uprisings. Their stories begin separately but intertwine towards the end. The choice of characters worked well and having a male character showed a different perspective.
This book was excellent regarding the small role changes that occurred quickly: the way that the alpha male TV news broadcaster gradually gets undermined by his younger female co-host; echoes of Trump when Margot goes up against a male candidate for Governor. There are also several incidences of rape – female against male – and while I felt that a couple of these were justified, I thought it became a little gratuitous by the end, especially as they became more violent and graphic in description. I have also read some criticism of the way Muslim women are portrayed (this is concerning the Saudi revolution – though I get that this is a simplified reversal of events such as those that took place in Iran in the 1970s).
Alderman builds tension by counting down to an unknown event. We begin at ‘Ten years to go’ and each section skips ahead a year or two. Generally I thought this worked well, since it would take time for societal changes to bed in, though at times I forgot that we’d moved on a few years, so eager was I to read quickly. I can’t say more without giving away massive spoilers but I was unsure about the very end of the book – I wasn’t sure it entirely worked. Nevertheless, a brilliant novel. In the wrong hands this could have easily become unfocused given the scope of it, but Alderman corrals her characters expertly to bring together a thrilling book.
I read this as part of the Baileys Prize longlist. I probably won’t have time to read all the novels before the shortlist is announced but here are links to those I’ve already reviewed: