BOOK CLUB: The Power

TARAH DARGE lauds the thrilling thought experiment that is Naomi Alderman’s latest novel, The Power, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Power

I am reading The Power while watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and man it’s messing with my mind. Like two sides of the same coin, both are set in dystopian future and both concern womankind’s fate. But while Atwood depicts a patriarchal theocracy in which women are enslaved and subject to endless horrors, Alderman envisions the status quo reversed to a dramatic effect almost too audacious to imagine.

The ripple of change begins with teenage girls. Worldwide, they awaken to a new power that allows them to emit shocks from their fingertips that can hurt or even kill. Videos of electric outbursts flood the internet, schools are segregated to protect boys, and men are warned not to venture out alone at night. Soon it spreads, in a collective swell that involves not just girls but older women too until nearly the entire female population is zapping their way to the top. As a female reader, there is an immense but barbed sense of satisfaction. Rapists, abusers and oligarchs get their comeuppance and women previously shackled in so many varied ways are suddenly free. However, this is no utopia, but rather a study in the corruption of power, whoever happens to wield it.

The story unfolds through the lives of four main characters, representative of the religious, political, cultural and criminal impact of the growing ‘crisis’. There is Allie – the American foster kid who refashions herself into the new world faith leader ‘Mother Eve’, Roxy, the tough-as-nails daughter of an infamous London mobster who uses her immense strength to rule the drug and arms trade, Margot – the ambitious senator with eyes on an increasing larger prize and Tunde – the lone male character who documents the tide of change as it happens across the globe, posting his vlogger footage on a YouTube-esque channel while the growing vitriol from disenfranchised men rages in online forums.

The structure is set to thrill, each chapter a countdown towards the global cataclysm, while the book itself is presented as a ‘historical novel’ – written by one Neil Adam Armon thousands of years into the future. In it, he questions how women came to be the dominant sex, and, in a playful spin, writes to lauded novelist ‘Naomi Alderman’, who, in turn, rejects his notion of a patriarchal society in a brilliant suggestion that cements the inevitability of the dominance of women. ‘With babies to protect’, women have always had to be ‘aggressive and violent’. There are also jabs at the male dominated publishing industry that hit home – an extra nail surely inspired by correspondence Alderman might have actually received.

Where it falls down in places, is the dialogue. The rough speak is a little twee and excessively sweary, with the action sequences reading more like the TV adaptation it’s bound to become partially obscuring the nuanced criticism it offers. But if Sci-Fi, comic-book like battles are your bag, it’s compelling, as is the well-researched commentary on rape-culture, porn, religious extremism and mercenary armies.

Zaps, fucks, and mafia rule book lines aside, The Power is fast-paced, important thought experiment and deft at illuminating the absurdity of our gender inequality gap, bound as we are in a world where the dysfunction is all too real.

The Power is published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

FICTION: Smiley

BY KIMBERLY BETH WATSON

I used to visit her Facebook profile sometimes and shake my head because she’d become a statistic of small town living. You know, married at like 20. Spawned a couple kids. It was always kind of shocking, though. Like she was smart. Definitely smarter than me. She even did a semester at New Mexico State studying biology. But when I ran into her mom, Kathy (who “could have been gay”, my own mother told me), she said it had been “too far away from home”. Home, that illusive concept. Both of ours were somewhere in the litter of houses scattered on the borders of large forests, or along the winding interstate parallel to the Lamoille River. It might have even been picturesque as long as you passed through at 50 miles an hour. When it’s a blur you can’t see the addiction, the bi-weekly visits from child protective services, the well-meaning moms who chain-smoke with their minivan doors rolled up, passing out Capri-suns.

 

I remember an email she wrote to the Hotmail address my mother made for me in our early high school days when we were still kind of in touch. She was writing to say she had “done everything except for vaginal sex” with the older brother of our mutual friend Alicia. Her parents had found out and she was definitely going to get in trouble. The frustration of conservative parents trying to control a girl who has discovered herself was beyond the boundaries of my imagination.  She had been top of her class in bible study. She did that shit out of school, like, on her own free time, voluntarily. Yet she was always kind of wild, in that backwoods eclectic podunk way that lets you have god but also tie-dye everything and country music.

But yeah, that guy wasn’t the best dude. Once when the bus dropped me off he yelled, “Don’t you live with a bunch of fags?” and I went home and asked what “fags” was. In retrospect, his family had all kinds of their own problems. Alicia told me her step-dad used to, you know, to her and her little sister. She told her mom Helen but the woman stayed with him. I know he’s still on the sex offender registry because I’ve looked. I hear Helen drives the school bus now.

 

There were weird shows her parents wouldn’t let her watch, like CatDog on Nickelodeon. In retrospect I guess it is perverted that an animal has two heads and no ass. When I was 9 her 10-year-old brother asked me out while we were sitting on the couch but when I told her she was grossed out and I broke up with him 5 minutes later. In between her bible study wins and obscure trips, like the time she went to Australia, at least three boys in our school fell in love with her. I remember one of them was literally obsessed with her in the fourth grade. It was even cooler because he was in grade five. That was the year our teacher let us assign our own nicknames he promised to use all year.

“Smiley”, she said.

 

I guess wanting more for someone is kind of selfish. Like having the audacity to “see more” for someone demeans their personal life agenda of important and fulfilling things.

But on the other hand, your life does kind of end when you have a kid young in a small town and also lack higher education, right?

I mean, she works at the village pizza place now. Okay, it’s the co-op local organic Vermont version of pizza, but it’s still in a village.

She’s probably happier than I am. Actually, I can say that for sure. In an organic way, not like in the way that people crop and edit their pictures because she’s not on Facebook that often and doesn’t even care that she has a double chin in her profile picture because she’s just happily laughing with her son. Plus, she’s definitely learned all those things you presumably learn when you become a mother: the innate selflessness, the radiating beauty of creation, the self-sacrifice.

So I guess that’s happiness.

I always felt bad for mauling her with attention when she schlepped all the way to visit me in the city. I was 11 and lonely and didn’t know why my own uprooting happened. But also thank god it did.

Anyway babies are gross or barely tolerable.  We’re not friends on Facebook.

FICTION: Aunty Ose

BY ALUKA IGBOKWE

The memories of Aunty Ose remains, determined to overshadow the the playful recollections of my prepubescent years: war start with street boys, Okoso with neighbours which left our fingers smarting, hide and seek and hopscotch with willing girls.

Aunty Ose or Pepper Aunty. The moniker was not because she sold peppers at main market or because she shared a tender redness with danjarawa peppers. It was because she derived a deep personal happiness from hurting others. Some of us can remember such people: people who kidnapped footballs, who drove us away from play grounds, who reported us to our parents if we climbed guava and mango and orange trees. Aunty Ose was such a person.

Aunty Ose was a stout woman with a reddened skin lined with crooked green veins reaching out like roots – evidence of many years of toning with cheap bleach. She wasn’t married, but it was said that her husband drove her out because she was barren. I wondered what kind of man would marry a woman who wears a frown like a second face and appears to be perpetually smelling the air. Others said she was a witch. I did not know which to believe. I just wanted her to leave our street and let us play until our heads ached, until our throats were parched and our limbs bruised. But she would have none of that.

One day, I was playing football with Confusion, Rubber Boy and Jet Li. We constructed a makeshift field by walking six steps one foot in front of the other and then drove cassava stems into the soil to serve as goal posts. Jet Li and Rubber Boy against me and Confusion. We had been sent home for not paying school fees, so we played during school hours. We liked it each time we were sent home. In fact, most times, whenever Uncle Kalu sauntered into our classroom with that Book of Life of his that is as big as an encyclopedia holding the names of debtors and creditors on separate pages, we would leave before he mentioned our names, even if we had paid.

We like to give ourselves names. It makes us feel important. He was called Confusion because he had a quarter-past-four eye. He would be looking at you and you would think he is looking at another person. If he happened to be looking at another person, it would be like he was staring at you straight in the eyes. I think he enjoyed confusing us.

Rubber Boy was named for his previous life playing rubber bands. Green, red and yellow rubber bands circled his wrists like bracelets – trophies from games with street boys.

Jet Li, at the slightest provocation, would aggressively kick the air this way and that way like an atilogwu dancer, as if he were strong. I could beat him and I’ve beaten him before with all his fake kung-fu.

I do not want to share my name because I am ashamed and I do not want you to start laughing at me.

When Aunty Ose returned from where ever she went, we knew that trouble loomed. She refused our greetings, which was not unusual, but we didn’t care, so we continued playing. When she came out again, we knew she was coming to pierce our hearts with her assegai and beat our bodies into shape with her knobkerrie. She called Confusion over. Their lips moved and we couldn’t make out what they were saying. He returned and said she asked us to leave her house front, and that she wanted to sleep. I confirmed she was really a witch – who else would sleep at noon so as to be awake and fly in the night.

It’s not that we didn’t agree to leave. We planned on leaving, except that Rubber Boy committed a foul before she came out to tell us to leave, so we wanted to play it out before we moved elsewhere. Since Jet Li is the goalkeeper on their side and Confusion is the goalkeeper on my side and Rubber Boy committed the foul, I was the one to take it. I was glad I didn’t acquiesce to becoming the goalkeeper. I would have missed this golden opportunity to prove to Jet Li that I am a great footballer and not the ‘JB’ he always called me.

I bent over and positioned the ball at the spot the foul was committed. I scooped warm soil round the ball because it was always rolling over. Satisfied that the ball was firmly in place, I stepped back and locked eyes with Jet Li. Jet Li squatted into an imaginary chair, waiting for my kick. I looked back at Confusion to give me that go-ahead look but he gave me that be-fast look. I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

I muttered a word of prayer and looked around at imaginary spectators. I saw them waving at me with permanent smiles on their faces. I drew my foot backwards and released it so the ball could curve outwards. The white ball stiff with trapped air was making a smooth journey, but instead of moving in the direction it had been shot, it took a sharp turn as if it had suddenly developed a mind of its own, as if something was playing sweet ogene for it. It was heading directly at Aunty Ose’s louvres, bent on shattering them.

It slammed into them and the louvres chased each other towards the ground. They covered the cement floor with uneven shards. For a moment, the wind paused and the trees quieted as if in solidarity. Silence enveloped us. We stood unflinching, unmoving, stoic. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we dashed off at once to hide behind the oil palm tree.

Stooped behind the oil palm tree like harried dogs, we feared for our lives. If Aunty Ose was really a witch, she would surely come in the night and drink our blood and eat our flesh and fly away with our skeletons. If she reported us to our parents as usual, it could be worse. It is like killing us and calling back our spirits and killing us again.

Aunty Ose rushed forward through her back door, her wax wrapper loosely wound around her chest, screaming, “Chim o, umuaka a egbugom o!” My God, these children have killed me!

“We should go and tell her sorry” Rubber Boy said, his voice light and feathery.

“Shhh. Do you want to die?” Confusion said, “Haven’t you heard she is a witch? Have you forgotten what she did to Yahoo Yahoo the last time?”

“What if she finds us?” I croaked, choking back tears.

“Shut up! She will find us if you continue this way. Let her find us and I will show her some skills” Jet Li said, wringing his hands like two entwined snakes.

I shot him fierce eyes and said “Onye ara, madman, you’re the one that’ll make the first run if she…”

“Will you two kom-kombilities just shut your stinking buccal cavities?” Confusion interjected harshly, his voice high. I do not like Confusion, he feels because he can speak big big English and because his father is a lecturer at the University College, he had somehow become a lord over us.

By this time, Aunty Ose had stopped wailing. She had reemerged from her house fully clad. She peered around, sniffing like a dog, as though certain we were hiding somewhere nearby. When her search proved futile she made for the exit. We did not need a soothsayer to tell us where she was going. Tonight, we are going to be killed and have our spirits called back again to be killed all over.

There is this myth that if as a child, you tie a knot at the tip of ashara tea before your assailant reached your home, your parents would forget everything they heard. Just like that, amnesia. Buoyed up by this myth, we searched frantically for the nearest ashara tea to make a knot. If we must escape the wrath of our parents and not have our buttocks tender and swollen as retribution from papa’s cowhide, we have to make a knot at the tip of ashara before Aunty Ose reached our homes.

We searched until we came upon a cluster of green lemon grass shaped like broken knife blades. We took our positions and faced our chosen stems. We each chose the greenest we could find. We called her name thrice: “Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose!” and tied our knots slowly so that the grass would not snap. That done, we were certain our parents would forget whatever Aunty Ose had come to tell them and come to receive us prodigal sons with arms spread apart whenever we returned.

BOOK CLUB: There Should Have Been Five

Professor BILL NASSON is enchanted by MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five which vividly brings a highly-charged 1940s wartime episode to life.

There Should Have Been Five by MJ HonikmannShould you ever judge a book by its cover? You have my blessing to do so with MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five. A first glance at its quietly dignified and intriguing cover design is enough to excite curiosity and interest. The staged front photograph portrays three dark-complexioned and khaki-clad Allied servicemen from the rear. They are gazing across flat and brown desert terrain towards a distant explosion which is sending a massive red-and-white ice-cream cone topping oozing out against a streaky blue sky. Who were these men, and where were they? What was the eruption that had caught their gaze?

The back cover illustration is a rampantly romantic head-and-shoulders colour portrait of an African soldier, with chin jutting and eyes set in a flat stare. Again, it begs a question. Who is this Othello in camouflage and with shoulder-flaps?

The answer – and an explanation of this book’s enigmatic and poignant title – is provided by the author’s engaging and imaginative historical story-telling. There Should Have Been Five is a compact dialogue between the present and the past which illuminates a largely-forgotten adventure from the Union of South Africa’s participation in World War Two. While Marilyn Honikman’s exceptionally readable novel is aimed at young adult readers or mature teenage readers, it has a wide enough reach to grip adult readers who need not be stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, like your reviewer. In other words, it merits a readership beyond the breathlessness of Teenzone Mag or the earnestness of The Teacher.

Impeccably researched, with a valuable short bibliography listing books, articles, oral interviews, private correspondence and even a recent documentary film, this book recreates a highly-charged episode from the wartime experiences of the 1940s in a fascinating and novel manner.

The peg upon which this drama hangs is the real figure of Lance-Corporal Job Maseko, a non-combatant African support soldier of the country’s Native Military Corps. Involved in Allied campaigning in East Africa and in North Africa, Job Maseko ended up in Western Desert fighting at Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. Hemmed in by circling Italian forces and punched by the German General Erwin Rommel’s crack Afrika Korps, the South African command threw in the towel in June 1942. With Tobruk having fallen, tens of thousands of South African troops, white and black, were rounded up and taken prisoner. Among them was a no-nonsense Lance-Corporal Maseko.

While the Union’s front-line white soldiers were shipped off to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Europe, most black servicemen did not cross the Mediterranean. Instead, they were consigned to local desert camps and pressed into labour service by their captors. Having laboured for Pretoria, they now found themselves labouring for Berlin and Rome.

As depicted here, Maseko was prominent among those who toiled for the enemy most grudgingly. During his work time unloading Axis supply ships at the port of Tobruk, a scheming Maseko was on the lookout for an opportunity to make things hot for the enemy. Single-handedly, he secretively pieced together oddments that had been collected – matches, fuse-wire, an empty tin, a pile of cordite extracted from old discarded bullets. This was sufficient to rig up an explosive contraption. When an opportune moment arrived in July 1942, Maseko got three of his most trusted fellow-POWs to distract their easily-diverted Italian guards, wormed his way deep into the hold of a supply-ship, and laid a slow burning device in an incendiary spot. By the time the delayed explosion set the ship on fire, a stealthy Job Maseko and his associates were back in their POW camp, their captors left none the wiser.

After the end of World War Two, four white South Africans were awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of valour. Maseko was also nominated, but this was vetoed by the Union Defence Force high command on the grounds that it would not do to award so high an honour to a lowly and subordinate Native Military Corps serviceman. But some recognition there had to be, and it came with the giving of the Military Medal.

We learn from Marilyn Honikman that this heroic character survived the war in which he had been “Lance Corporal Job Maseko MM”, only to return to a postwar South Africa to find that it was business as usual in a place where his place was to be called “boy”. True to this personal drama, Maseko’s end is tinged with tragedy, sadness and mystery. No one knew for certain what had happened, but “they found his body on the railway line… Not a good way for such a splendid man to die,” one of the story’s aged characters concludes.

This book uses the device of a lost or forgotten past being discovered by a curious present in a consistently lively and informative story which weaves back and forth between 1942 and the early 21st Century. We discover – or rediscover – Job Maseko through the widening eyes of two teenagers, John and Zanele Matshoba, who come across his noble painting while visiting the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Consumed by curiosity over “a Black South African who won a medal in the Second World War”, they launch a barrage of questions. The most animated answers come not from tattered 1950s copies of Drum Magazine, but through spending a night with their grandmother or gogo, in Diepkloof, Soweto.

As a writer who wants to get across a point or two about this relatively neglected aspect of South African history, Honikman’s approach is to grab the reader by the lapels and not to let go. In a deft contrivance which works entertainingly in this kind of historical fiction, the grandmother’s old next-door neighbour, “Old Mr Ndebele”, turns out to be a WW2 veteran who had actually served alongside Job Maseko.

Drawing on a sprightly set of wartime memories, he captivates his teenage visitors with an array of jaw-dropping tales, from driving army lorries in Kenya and Abyssinia, eluding Italians, and dodging ravenous hyenas, to encountering Rommel himself in a POW camp. These snapshots are an effective mechanism to bring a vivid historical story alive for contemporary readers, especially for those who are younger. Of course, this also entails doing something which historians should never do – making up words to stick into the mouths of dead people. But Honikman gets away with it. As with Elizabeth Bowen, the classic Anglo-Irish novelist of childhood, here the sharpest observers and most probing questioners are not adults, but buzzing children. A scrupulous and self-aware author, in her interesting author’s notes at the end she reflects upon what had to be done –adaptation, minor invention and borrowing – as devices to deal with matters that could not be known. Maybe more history should be left to accomplished writers who can write well and with verisimilitude rather than to historians who have forgotten that history is a literary craft.

Lance Corporal Job Maseko is the spine of a plot in which time flits back and forth, between the army recruiting pamphlet waved at African mineworkers in the early 1940s and a teenager’s iPad in 2014. Around it, the author fills a rib cage with an account of some of the experiences and fortunes of the almost 80,000 black South Africans who volunteered for the Union’s war effort, touching on their motivations, their feelings about serving a racially discriminatory country, and their return home to a deflating life. For Jan Smuts’s opportunistic claim that “the world cause of freedom is also our cause”, was, predictably, specious. Dedicated to “the great-grandchildren of the 354,000 South Africans of all races who volunteered to serve… in the fight against Hitler, the Nazis and the Italian fascists in World War II”, this little book is a moving and worthy tribute to all those who had hoped that victory might have been brought them a better society at home.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.