The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible.”

Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.

The Sport of Kings tells the story of four generations of the Forge family. It begins with a young Henry, running away from his father, John Henry, across the Kentucky corn fields which belong to their family. Henry’s in trouble, not for setting off a firecracker which killed the neighbouring farmer’s bull, but for lying to his father about it and embarrassing the family name. For their name, and the status which comes with it, is everything to the Forge family.

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In the first chapter we’re told the family history, of Samuel Forge and his slave ‘who was called Ben but named Dembe by a mother he could not remember’ who travelled on horseback from Virginia to Kentucky and established the farm which seven generations of the family have born and died in by the time Henry Forge arrives in the world.

Henry’s raised and educated by his father – who won’t tolerate him attending school at a time when segregation is ending – to believe that he is superior to women, black people and poorly educated whites.

“What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as little boys, perhaps more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving towards loftier pursuits.”

Henry hates his father. His rebellion takes the form of declaring that when he inherits the farm, he’s going to abandon the corn and raise racehorses instead. His father forbids him but, of course, that has no bearing once someone’s dead.

The rest of the novel follows Henry as he raises a daughter – Henrietta (of course) – in the same manner that he would’ve raised a son. She is primed to take over the farm and continue the breeding of thoroughbreds. Henry, however, doesn’t account for two things: one, Henrietta is intelligent and feels trapped by her father’s overbearing nature, she has a wild streak and a desire for freedom, however she can find it. Two, Allmon Shaughnessy, the mixed-race, former convict, who Henrietta hires as a groom and falls in love with.

Morgan’s novel is ambitious. A family saga spanning several decades, which incorporates themes of lineage, breeding, class, gender and race. There’s a reasonably large cast of characters, some of whom last a few pages, others which span significant portions of the book. The structure means that the focus is primarily on the Forges, but the middle chapter is dedicated to Allmon’s childhood, a signifier that he will play a significant part in the Forge’s future.

Now Henry smiled a hard smile. His words were clipped, surly. “Why are you even here anyway? What do you want?”

With an almost inperceptible tilt of the head, as if he was honestly surprised by the question, Allmon said, “I want what you got.”

Henry’s scornful smile died. He drew himself up to his full height and said, “All my life, I’ve made my name. It’s the most valuable thing I have.”

“And I got the rest of my life to make mine.”

Without a pause: “You can’t make a name from nothing.”

We had quite a discussion about this book in the Baileys Shadow Panel forum. Eleanor applauded ‘just for the sheer fuck-you-ness of it’, particularly in reference to some of the eye-popping twists that Morgan pulls off. It’s difficult not to admire Morgan’s ambition; undoubtedly the book falls into the Great American Novel category and I’ll happily applaud any woman writer who throws her manuscript into that ring. However, aiming for something of that scope almost inevitably means there will be flaws. For me there are three key issues: the book’s too long; the novel really centres on the relationship between Henrietta and Allmon and the effect that has on Henry. The family backstory, which takes the first 90 pages, is interesting in its own right but, in terms of the elements which really effect the rest of the story, could’ve been incorporated into the rest of the narrative as and when necessary. The voice is inconsistent: every now and then Morgan throws in a section where the narrator talks to the reader. Often these sections point out the book’s flaws – prose too purple, characters acting too stereotypically, which is a risky strategy. Finally, the ending’s a little too neat. Morgan plays tight to her themes throughout the novel and the ending delivers in this sense but it’s all a bit too convenient.

Is it worth investing the time to read it? When it’s good The Sport of Kings is an absorbing read. Henrietta’s a fantastic character – she gives no fucks, metaphorically speaking – and Allmon’s story is an engaging, if grim, tale of a black boy raised in poverty and dealt a deliberately shitty hand by society. There are parallels with current issues around class, money, health care and police treatment of black people. My biggest disappointment was that, despite the feminist thread that runs through the novel, it would barely scrape through The Bechdel Test. Wouldn’t it be great if the Great American Novel didn’t have to be centred on the men to be seen as a success?

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.

 

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

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Here we are then, the official Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

When I commented on the longlist, the word of the night was wow and it’s the same again.

Wow: some big names and popular books have gone.

Wow: there are four titles in common with our Shadow Panel shortlist.

Wow: If you’re only reading the shortlist you’ve an absolute set of treats in store (although I implore you to read the longlist, it’s full of brilliant books).

Here’s my reviews of the shortlisted books:

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Do Not Say We Have Nothing –  Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has one of the most arresting openings I’ve read in a while. The narrator who speaks these words has several names – her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling; her English name, Marie Jiang, and Girl, her father’s nickname for her because the Chinese word for daughter and girl is the same. She lives in Vancouver, working as a university professor in mathematics, but the story that concerns her now is that of her father and, in particular, events during the creation of The People’s Republic of China and the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

After Marie’s father dies, her mother introduces her to the Book of Records. Passed down through their family, it tells the story of Da-Wei and May Fourth. They only have book 17 of numerous volumes and Marie’s mother tells her it’s a story copied out by a ‘refined calligrapher’.

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At the end of the same year, Marie’s mother takes a young woman into their home. Nineteen-year-old, Ai-ming has left Beijing after being part of the events in Tiananmen Square. Marie’s mother has agreed she can live with them for the time being as Ai-ming’s father was Marie’s father’s composition teacher when he was a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Although Marie is initially hostile to Ai-ming, she relents as Ai-ming begins to share the contents of the Book of Records and how the book came to be part of their family. The latter is one of many stories her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, told her:

“I assumed.” Ai-ming told me, “that when Big Mother’s stories finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, ‘But that’s how the world is, isn’t it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?’

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a number of things: it is the story of a family’s history, it is a story of life in China during a turbulent period in its history; it is a story of love, and it is a meditation on art and its role in our lives. All of these parts are interesting and make for a hugely satisfying novel but it is Thien’s examination of art which I found most interesting.

Many of Thien’s characters are storytellers: Big Mother Knife, her brother-in-law – Wen the Dreamer, Ai-ming, and Marie. While Marie’s father, Kai, Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, and Ai-ming’s aunt, Zhuki, are musicians and composers. Her exploration of their craft asks questions around the value of art in a closed society and what benefit stories serve to future generations. The former is neatly summed up in a paragraph from Sparrow’s perspective:

He wanted to tell his mother about an entirely different recording, Bach’s six sonatas for the same two instruments. Throughout his life, Bach had returned to these six pieces, polishing and revising them, rewriting them as he grew older. They were almost unbearably beautiful, as if the composer wanted to find out how much this most basic of sonata forms – exposition, development, recapitulation – could hold, and in what ways containment could hold a freedom, a life.

The role of storytelling in the way in which the Book of Record is copied but altered slightly or details inserted in the retelling, making it relevant to the new narrators and readers. Thien interweaves this discussion into the narrative without it ever threatening to overwhelm the story itself. It’s a skilful consideration of the work Thien herself is doing too.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a complex, satisfying work on family, society, history and art and the impact all four have on the future.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

‘Have you ever seen God in a labour room giving birth to a child? Tell me, Yejide, have you ever seen God in the labour ward? Women manufacture children and if you can’t? You are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.’

Yejide and Akin have been married for two years when Akin’s mother begins bringing potential second wives to his office every Monday morning. When she threatens to start visiting Yejide with the women each week, Akin agrees to marry Funmi. The deciding factor? That she doesn’t insist on moving in with him. Instead, he installs her in a flat, leaving Yejide blissfully unaware of her existence.

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At the beginning of the novel, and four years into Akin and Yejide’s marriage, Iya Martha, Yejide’s father’s oldest wife, and Baba Lola, Akin’s uncle, present Yejide with Funmi. They’re convinced that when Funmi gets pregnant Yejide will too.

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me-smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready.

Yejide is an educated woman with her own hairdressing salon business. She is smart, confident and independent, but the society she lives in isn’t constructed to recognise women as such. The lack of a pregnancy is seen as her shortcoming, and when Yejide calls Akin a bastard, Iya Martha criticises her for not allowing Funmi to stay in their house. She says Yejide should be grateful to her husband, while Yejide points out to the reader that she pays half of the rent.

The novel alternates between Yejide and Akin’s points of view. This structural decision adds depth, allowing Adébáyò to consider the effects of a patriarchal society which values gender constructs, particularly motherhood, from both a female and a male perspective. Adébáyò uses it particularly well for moments of dramatic irony, priming the reader for the point when the other half of the couple will discover a betrayal.

It’s obvious that Akin loves his first wife and not his second, but also that he feels torn between Yejide and his mother, who makes her expectations clear. As Funmi inserts herself further into their lives and Yejide tries everything – doctors, prophets, priests – in order to help her conceive, their marriage begins to feel the strain and both of them make choices that will have devastating consequences.

Stay With Me considers a patriarchal, patrilineal, heterosexual society’s expectations of a married couple. It examines the pressure for couples to produce children; the value that’s placed on the continuation of the bloodline.

Adébáyò incorporates something of the thriller genre with a few unexpected and shocking twists, while writing sentences as beautiful as these:

I did not feel better. I would not feel better for a very long time. Already, I was coming undone, like a hastily tied scarf, coming loose, on the ground before the owner knows it.

But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretched to accommodate every new level of indignity, so I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Stay With Me is intelligent, provocative and gripping. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is an exciting new talent.

If you will be in or around London a week today (Tuesday 7th March), I will be chairing a New Nigerian Fiction night at Waterstones, Gower Street featuring Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Chibundo Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos. More information and tickets are available here.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, in a mid-brain void. At the sink, in the street, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work out anything.

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. We know from the opening pages that Neve and Edwyn’s relationship is one of extremes. He calls her ‘little smelly puss’, ‘little cleany puss’, ‘little compost heap’ and ‘little cabbage’ between cuddles and kisses.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

Edwyn tells Neve she needs to get behind ‘the project’, the project being not to wind Edwyn up. Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what will irritate Edwyn and cause an irrational outburst, or violence, or gaslighting.

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Neve positions her marriage in the context of other relationships, particularly those with her parents. Her father is abusive. She recalls a day when she read some of the list of things her father had done to her mother, documented by her mother for her solicitor:

‘Listen to this,’ I said. ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about head while breast-feeding. Hit about head while suffering migraine. Several kicks at the base of the spine. Hot pan thrown, children screaming.’

Edwyn questions Neve’s mother’s memory. Could she remember all eight years of her marriage? Did she keep a diary? His attitude mirrors that of society towards women who verbalise the abuse they’re suffering. He ends the exchange referring to the things on the list as ‘incidents’ when Neve refers to them as ‘assaults’.

Neve also suffers abuse from her father. Her brother stopped visiting after he was punched in the face, but Neve’s mother, becoming complicit in the abuse, pleads with Neve to continue seeing him in order to ‘keep the peace’. On one visit when a friend from work is present, he sends Neve to the bathroom to ‘clean up’. There, under the seat, she finds ‘two drops of dried blood, both tiny’. When she’s returns to the living room, her father declares, ‘Women just aren’t naturally clean are they?’ He punctuates his abuse with invitations to dinner and concerts, lavishing money on Neve, attempting to push her to question what type of person he really is.

Riley writes with precision and perception, forcing the gap between how we view ourselves and how others see us. She shows how people exploit that perception to their own ends, how insecurities can manifest as abuse towards others. There’s an excruciating moment when Neve meets up with an ex. Despite initially saying he’s not interested in a relationship, he makes a play for her saying ‘I don’t think I can think of you…outside the context of – loving you?’ After they sleep together, he leaves and Neve emails him telling him she’s in love with him. He responds a week later telling her he doesn’t feel the same way.

Despite being a slim 162 pages, I read First Love over several days, having to take regular breaks after feeling as though I’d been punched in the stomach. Again and again and again. So many of the conversations, the ‘incidents’ as Edwyn might refer to them, felt real. Riley’s dialogue, in particular, reads as it might be spoken in real life and when Neve questions her own perception, I couldn’t help but feel she spoke for many of us:

…had I been very naïve? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?

Through a fragmented structure, Riley circles back to Neve and Edwyn, lacking a clear conclusion as to where their relationship is headed and whether Neve will ever break the cycle her parents began.

First Love is superb. A taut exploration of love and the behaviour which binds us to the past as we attempt to move into the future.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The second world war’s been over for four years but London’s still drab, dreary and drizzly. Into the centre, to Trafalgar Square, comes eighteen-year-old Lenny Lynskey who, upon hearing the anti-Semitic speaker there, throws his lunch at him:

Chopped fish on rye assaulted the speaker’s cheek. The smell of herring barrel was all over his face and collar. Minced onion fell down his neck. Cake crumbs got inside his nostrils. There was a meal all over him. His supporters rushed to help. Others thought he’d been shot by a silent gun. Find the bastard, cried the crowd, give him a good hiding, the cowardly little –

Next to him a muscular individual in a pea jacket, as if he’d stepped off the deck of a merchant vessel, was raising his arm. The arm had a fist at the end of it and something bulging beneath the fingers. ‘The fucking little Jew-boy swine the kike-nosed prick let him have it.’

Lenny is rescued by his twin-sister, Miriam, who sees the event from the florist’s shop where she works. Lenny and Miriam are close, have never not spent a day together. He sees it as his role to protect her from the boys who are ‘mad for her’.

After the event, Lenny heads off to his army medical. He knows he’s not going to be enlisted as his Uncle Manny’s paid a guy to ensure he’s not fit. What neither of them are aware of is that Lenny isn’t fit and soon he and Miriam are being taken to a sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. One that people go into but very rarely return from.

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Grant uses this to show the changes taking place in society at this time. The twins, who are ‘common’, are only able to access the sanatorium due to the wonders of the newly established National Health Service. Of course, not everyone is convinced that this is a good thing:

Mrs Carver, Matron you must call her, did not have to check her files to know that they were coming under the new National Health scheme and wouldn’t pay a penny out of their own pockets, they could hang around as long as they liked and it wouldn’t cost them a farthing. And they would stay, she felt sure of that. They would burrow into the system like parasites and milk it for everything they could get. Clean sheets, wholesome food, all the leisure time in the world. It was a skiver’s paradise, a sanatorium which had been built for a better class of persons, and there was nothing at all that she could do to protect the admirable Lady Anne from the sight of cheap loud vulgar people.

Lenny and Miriam have quite an effect on the established patients: Lenny creates a scene in the dining room the following morning when he can’t see his sister; Miriam, who is prescribed the rest cure and is confined to the veranda to allow the cold air into her lungs, begins to form a relationship with her roommate, Valerie. As Miriam introduces Valerie to make-up and hair techniques and standing up for herself, Valerie introduces Miriam to Kafka, and their worlds blend into each other.

Then, into the already rocked world of the sanatorium, comes the American sailor Persky, with his blue denim and his rock n’ roll records and cunnilingus. All of which, he delights in introducing to the patients. (The latter is passed around as a delightful little secret throughout the book. Grant clearly had some fun with this.)

This is also the era of television. The girlfriend of one of the patients works as a producer and explains to her friend, an MP:

‘The radio types are terribly condescending. We’re caught in a bit of a contradiction – the upper classes consider us a vulgar little peep show and the masses can’t afford a set so no one is taking us very seriously at the moment.’

Grant invites the reader to draw parallels to today. In this instance, it would be the discussion about new technologies – the internet, tablets, ereaders – and the fear they will lead to the death of the book and our brain cells. In other parts of the book, she makes the connection more explicit; the MP returns, the girlfriend having asked him to manipulate things so her partner can be one of the patients on a trial of new drug streptomycin, which appears to be a cure. Not only is there the link to the ‘postcode lottery’ in the UK but this is the MP’s take on the request:

We were all in this together, that was the purpose of the political life and of his party, the clearing of the slums, the building of five million homes, the creation of the Health Service, ironing out differences, but could you ever, really? Wasn’t life just made up of endless oddballs like her?

You tried to be fair, you tried to have no special preferences, everyone had their own set of individual grievances. They came to him with their tales of sorrow and injustice and you tried to help but God, he had had absolutely no idea there would be so many of them. The middle class was a thin lacquer overlaying a great sore of misery. He was middle class, wasn’t everyone? He’d thought so until now. People like him had connections, they knew how to make things work to their advantage and that was wrong, but how the hell do you stop yourself? Are we not individuals first, members of society second? Nothing was fair, though you did what you could to make it fairer.

Tony Blair’s got a lot to answer for.

While the first two sections of the novel are very good, it’s the third that really turns this into a great novel. Grant sends a group of the characters to Mallorca – this also being the beginning of Thompson’s package holidays – where the tension rise and, amidst the heat, relationships are formed and broken and futures are decided. Whereas the world invaded the closed quarters of the sanatorium in the first two sections of the novel, the modern world opens up to those who’ve survived in the third. It’s among the best writing I’ve read this year.

The Dark Circle looks at change, at the way modernisation occurred after the second world war. Grant focuses on class, using the likeable, funny, brash twins to aid the reader in rooting for this collapsing of societal barriers, along with the establishment of the NHS, the rise of television, the influence of America, and the rise of the package holiday. It’s the point at which society really began to allow people to become anything they wanted to be, to move through the class system beyond their roots.

Grant takes the reader through quite a large cast of characters, skilfully interweaving their points of view into the narration so it never feels as though we’re being jolted between viewpoints or losing track of who’s who.

The real triumph of The Dark Circle though is how Grant nudges the reader to draw parallels to society today: to the discussion around immigrants, to the death of the NHS, to the rising class inequality, to the narrowing of horizons. She ends the novel by mentioning that tuberculosis is ‘undergoing a revival’, unfortunately it’s not the only thing.

If you’re interested in learning more about the novel and hearing other people’s views of it, it will be discussed on the following sites throughout the next week.

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Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

The Power – Naomi Alderman + interview

Helen Simpson’s latest collection, Cockfosters, contains a short story called ‘Erewhon’. The bulk of the tale takes place between 3.29am and 5.20am as the narrator lies awake in bed worrying about their work as a teacher; not knowing how to approach their partner to discuss going part-time; thinking about the parent who told them about the domestic abuse they’re suffering; considering unrealistic media images of people their age, and so on. It sounds like a familiar tale, until you know that the narrator is male. Simpson subverts stereotypes, creating a picture of domesticity as it might be in a matriarchy. In her fourth novel The Power, Naomi Alderman mines a similar vein but on a global scale.

A framing device introduces the reader to the idea that the book we’re about to read has been written by a male academic which he’s sent to an academic called Naomi, seeking her opinion on it. He describes it as ‘a sort of hybrid piece […] Not quite history, not quite a novel’.

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The book he’s written begins with the Day of the Girls. It’s the day that the world at large discovers that young women contain a power within them, a power they can harness and use. Tunde, a twenty-one-year-old journalism student in Lagos, becomes aware of this power when he flirts with and then grabs a girl at a swimming pool. On the Day of the Girls, he’s in a shop where he witnesses a man harassing a teenage girl. Aware that she’s about to use her power, he films the incident on his phone.

Tunde is recording when she turns around. The screen of his phone fuzzes for a moment when she strikes. Other than that, he gets the whole thing very clearly. There she is, bringing her hand to his arm while he smiles and thinks she is performing mock-fury for his amusement. If you pause the video for a moment at this point, you can see the charge jump. There’s the trace of a Lichtenberg figure, swirling and branching like a river along his skin up from wrist to elbow as the capillaries burst.

Tunde posts the video online which triggers a wave of films and a wave of incidents.

The story follows three key females: Roxy, Margot and Allie.

Fourteen-year-old Roxy is the daughter of a London gangster. Her story begins when she witnesses her mother’s murder in their house. She’s one of the first to discover the power, using it to disarm one of the men attempting to kill her mum.

Margot, the mayor of a town in Wisconsin, has to make decisions about how to manage the girls and their new found powers. When her daughter Jos is sent home for fighting with a boy, Margot asks her to demonstrate how the power works. What she doesn’t expect is for the power to awaken within her too.

Allie, the sixteen-year-old, mixed-race, foster daughter of white Christians Mr and Mrs Montgomery-Taylor, discovers her power as Mrs Montgomery-Taylor sits in her living room listening to the radio and sipping sherry while Mr Montgomery-Taylor rapes her in her bedroom, as he does most evenings. She kills him, leaves through her bedroom window and walks until she finds a convent where they take her in. There a voice speaks to her. She takes the name Mother Eve and preaches about a new nation run by women.

A revolution begins: women take power in the streets, in their homes, in political administrations, in religious affairs. Tunde travels the world, documenting the changes taking place.

The novel’s so compelling, the world Alderman creates so complete and believable that when the framing device returned at the end, I’d forgotten I was supposed to be reading a text written by a male academic. What’s so clever about this though is that Alderman uses it to question almost everything the academic has included which contradicts the established narrative in their society. You can tell how much fun she had writing it:

What you’ve written here contradicts so many of the history books we all read as children; and they’re based on traditional accounts going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. What is it that you think happened? Are you really suggesting that everyone lied on a monumental scale about the past?

All love, Naomi

What’s particularly brilliant about Alderman’s approach to all this is she refuses to allow her matriarchal society to be the soft, caring, fluffy world that some like to argue women in charge would bring. Alderman’s women are interested in power, in taking charge, in ruling the world. There is violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse.

When I first came across Simpson’s story ‘Erewhon’, I was present at an event where she read it aloud. It was hilarious, I howled with laughter the whole way through. As I read The Power I also found myself thrilled at moments, laughing and feeling as though I could punch the air. Hurrah for women on top, it’s about time! But seconds later as the full horror of the women’s actions were revealed, the joy turned to disgust. It’s not funny when you remember that the worries and fears of Simpson’s narrator and the actions and desires of Alderman’s characters are things women deal with every day in our current society. Here’s hoping that these stories allow more people to see this and they become catalysts for change.

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Photograph by David Levene

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome Naomi Alderman to the blog to answer some questions about her work.

Where did the idea for a matriarchal society where women have special power come from?

Heh. Really, it came from living in a patriarchal society where men have a specially large amount of upper body strength! I imagine an alien from a planet without gender asking me this question and being very puzzled by sexual dimorphism, but as we do have gender all I had to do was turn it over and see how it looked upside down.

I took a long time thinking about exactly what power I could give women that would flip it over without feeling too unbalanced or different to what men have. It couldn’t be something that gave a total upper hand: men don’t have laser beams coming out of their eyes, their physical strength advantage (on average) only works in a fight at close quarters. And I didn’t want it to feel too *silly*. The power I give women in this novel is exactly what electric eels and other electric fish have – so at least it exists in a species that evolved on the same planet as us. Those genes exist, they could theoretically have evolved in us, given the right push at the right moment.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about unlikeable female characters. All of your lead females have unlikeable aspects to different degrees; how do you feel about these elements of your characters and the debate in general?

I really like difficult women. Ballsy, aggressive, demanding women are my bag. If I see that a woman is mouthy, if she’s ambitious and spikey and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, I make a beeline for her.

I find people who need to be liked very exhausting. Like children doing forward rolls and constantly looking back to see if you noticed and asking for approval. I mean that’s fine for children, but it’s not really the thing if you’re 43 years old with an MBA and are CEO of a company.

One of the best things I ever did for myself was to realise that not everyone will like me; and that’s not just OK, it is *desireable*. The only people who are actually liked by everyone are those who are so anodyne that no one really knows what they think about anything. They show no passion, no temper, nothing but a smooth bland facade of received opinions. For the most part, and within normal parameters of human decency: if you’re really hated by some people it means that other people will really really love you.

All of this is to say, I love the women in The Power because none of them are trying to be likeable, and those are my favourite women in the world. And honestly, how much of a shit would you give about whether people liked you if you could electrocute people with your fingertips?

There are moments in The Power which make quite uncomfortable reading. For me, this was because there’s something quite thrilling about women in positions of power until you realise that some of their actions are really quite horrific. Was this the reaction you were aiming for?

Oh yes, of course. We live in a world mediated by and patrolled by threats and reports of violence. If you don’t believe me, just think how comfortable you’d be as a woman alone walking home at 3am. And then think how often you’ve tried it, or known a woman who tried it, and how often a woman you *actually know* has been attacked. Not that it doesn’t happen of course. But mostly the violence we imagine all around us has been taught to us as a story about what it means to be a woman. And I’m offering a new story. Of course it’s thrilling, it would be!

So: of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence. The only conceivable route to freedom is to become the aggressor. So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor.

Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

You interweave a number of recent events into the narrative, I’m thinking particularly of the Egyptian uprisings and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Did you find the story changing as current events took place?

The wonderful thing about writing a novel about gender is that it touches everything; gender is everywhere, gender biases and assumptions are wild in our culture and in the way we think about everything. This is also the massive *problem* with writing a novel about gender! I had a first draft that was about 200,000 words long and I knew I’d either have to rewrite it from scratch or write another 200,000 and turn it into a trilogy. (I threw it out and started again.)

So yes, the story was able to touch on anything that seemed important and of-the-moment. It didn’t *change* the story exactly, but current events gave it an interesting flavour.

The journalist who reports on these events is a young African male. Why did you decide to have a male character witness this change in society?

It seemed to me that, right at the start, men would still have the feeling they have now: that the world is open to them, free and exciting and that there are very few if any places where they’re not allowed to go. Most women don’t have this feeling, and it would take us a while to get there. So Tunde made sense as the character who would instantly set off to investigate the changed world. And of course it gives him a nice series of realisations about how slowly and insidiously his freedom’s been curtailed.

It also became clear to me that if I didn’t have a man’s perspective in at the start of the novel, I’d have – in essence – no ‘woman’s’ perspective in by the end. Where the ‘woman’s’ perspective isn’t about genitals but about a position in the world, and a mental shift.

You use a framing device which suggests a male academic has written the text of The Power, while a female colleague critiques and questions the validity of the text. Why did you choose to frame the novel in this way?

In a way it was: to make myself laugh. Because I wanted to be able to write a bit of *full reversal*, where the whole thing was done and dusted several thousand years ago and this new world order is now just normal. But once I’d decided to do it, I found there were so many useful things I could talk about this way. One was: the uses of history. We use the stories we choose to remember from history as a way of justifying and shoring-up the society we live in: it must be this way, it’s always been this way. We forget the parts of history that don’t fit with our smooth narrative. I thought that if this really had happened there would be a lot of forces wanting our world, this strange “world ruled by men” to be forgotten. And that seemed a pretty mind-bending place to end up. And I love a mind-bending story.

A conversation about religion seems to be a significant part of your writing – in earlier novels as well as in The Power. Is writing about religion a way of working out your own feelings about it?

Funnily enough, I feel fairly settled in my own feelings about religion these days. I grew up an Orthodox Jew and now I say that God is somewhere between my imaginary friend and my ex-boyfriend. So: my ex-imaginary-boyfriend. We used to spend a lot of time together, and not all of it was terrible or I wouldn’t have stayed so long, but in the end I decided that I was better out of that relationship. This is – pleasingly to me – an answer that will satisfy neither the religious nor the atheists nor, I suspect, even the agnostics. I don’t think that “does God exist?” is anywhere near being the most interesting question about God or religion at all.

So why do I write about religion? Because I think that Matthew Arnold was wrong and the sea of faith hasn’t really receded – or it’s only receded among a smallish group of people in a smallish area of the world. Most people on the planet still worship, pray, practice their faith, for billions of people their religious life is the centre of their day or week. Or near the centre, anyway. I think the instinct to religion is as inevitable as the instinct to violence; of course we can learn to do and think differently, and maybe it’s advisable that we do, but that doesn’t mean the instincts will ever fully go away. I think at a time of global cataclysm – the kind that might happen if all the women suddenly developed the power to electrocute people at will! – some world religions would have a field day. Or would offer people wonderfully helpful comfort. Maybe those are the same thing.

You were paired with Margaret Atwood through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. What influence has she had on your writing in general and on The Power specifically?

Margaret is my dear friend now – as are her family! So her – and their – influence has been as much on my life as on my writing. She’s introduced me to some wild places in the world: we went birdwatching in Cuba and travelled to the Arctic together. That’s rearranged my head in some interesting ways. And I’ve been able to see the disciplined daily schedule that means that Margaret Atwood is able to get her writing done wherever she is in the world: inspirational and strangely calming, because all that brilliance doesn’t just come effortlessly. Good writers work hard.

As for The Power: it was Margaret who first suggested the word ‘convents’ to me in this context. So that was a good steer.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Han Kang, Joanna Russ, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Knox, Daphne Du Maurier, Josephine Tey, Elizabeth Goudge. I could go on, and on, and on….

Huge thanks to Naomi Alderman for the interview and to Penguin for the review copy.