- Multiple Narratives
- Third Person Limited
- Themes: Feminism, gender roles, discrimination, power, and corruption.
All over the world women are discovering they have the power. With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain—even death. Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control. The day of the girls has arrived—but where will it end?
Yep. Took me about two seconds to impulsively pick up the book and take it to the till after reading that blurb.
This is the first novel I have read by Naomi Alderman and my only gripe is that I haven’t read her work sooner. Her style is easy to read, making this novel a good zipper—ie. a book that can be zipped through at an alarming speed. I finished it in about two days, give or take.
The bulk of the story is sandwiched by letters between a self-effacing social historian and author, Neil, and a fellow author, Naomi. The letters at the beginning set up the overall outcome of the novel which you might think would spoil the ending. On the contrary, this technique creates suspense and I found myself asking while reading “but how do we get from here to there?” The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, explains the idea of revealing important information to create suspense in the book Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut (Simon and Schuster, 1985):
There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
Alderman achieves suspense from page one by using the technique that Hitchcock describes—and it makes for a thrilling read.
The main theme focusses on gender roles and the consequences of their subversion. There is a gradual change in gender roles throughout the book, echoed beautifully in tiny snippets of American news anchors’ chatter, where the man usually makes the interesting points—“Did you know the guy who invented the battery was inspired by looking at the bodies of electric eels?”—while the woman is there to receive his wisdom—“I did not know that, Tom, that is fascinating…And now the weather on the ones”. These are delicious little morsels that not only reflect the changes happening to the characters in the novel but also imply a wider scope of the impact of these changes.
Alderman has chosen four main narratives, three female, and one male, all written in the third person limited point of view. The inclusion of a male narrative was a brilliant decision, as we see the impacts of the changes within society through Tunde—a college-age photo journalist from Lagos—and we are able to empathise with his situation, which often drifts into the uncomfortable, and sometimes the truly horrendous. The multiple narratives also add to the suspense of the novel and made me desperate to turn the page to find out what was going on with the characters who are not in the current narrative.
Overall, Alderman’s novel takes a hard look at the differences, and similarities, between the genders and examines the ideas of the matriarchy and patriarchy. Her style is easy to read and the heightening suspense makes this novel difficult to put down.