I read a lot of historical fiction. In the last eight months, with my reviewing for The Times and as a judge for the HWA gold crown, I think I have read about 100 novels, ranging from pre-Roman Britain to Post War Europe.
I don't mind being stuck in one genre. I write and review historical fiction because I love it, and have loved it as long as I can remember. But sometimes, when I get a break in the reviewing, I need something else. Something non-historical. Something involving helicopters, or spaceships, or the internet, or very modern mores. Something with women who kick-ass in a non-anachronistic kind of way.
When I had a break from my reading schedule last month, I picked up Naomi Alderman's highly lauded, Bailey's Prize winning, The Power. Why, you may wonder, am I reviewing a dystopian novel set in the future for a History Girls website? The answer lies in The Power's extraordinary structure. It is written, in the future, as a purported historical novel.
It is this framing device I want to write about here. (Leaving aside the fact that, on my break from historical novels, I accidentally read a pretend historical novel)
The book opens with a letter. The letterhead gives the address The Men Writers Association, New Bevand Square. The writer is Neil, and it begins: "Dear Naomi, I have finished the bloody book."
He has enclosed the manuscript and describes it as "not quite history, not quite a novel. A sort of 'novelisation' of what archaeologists now believe is the most plausible narrative."
I will admit here, that my heart sank at this point. Too meta. Too self-aware. I was already wary of the premise of The Power. In it, women develop an electrical power that allows them to subjugate men physically. The balance of physical power shifts, rewriting the entire political structure of the globe.
I am, obviously, a feminist - but an old school feminist who finds arguments about intersectionality utterly tedious, and looks around at May, Merkel, Lagarde, Davidson, Sturgeon, Foster, O'Neill, Jones, Dick, Cotton et al and thinks we're not doing so badly. I was worried that The Power would be a misandrist fable of dreary worthiness. Add in a pastiche of my own beloved genre and I was doubling down on the suspicion.
But the book was bought. And so on I ploughed - to discover that The Power is a work of extraordinary genius, that should be lauded as highly as A Handmaid's Tale, and set as a GCSE text book immediately.
Leaving aside the subtle and fascinating exploration of the links between physical prowess and power; and the quite brilliant dissection of gender politics, part of the novel's success is its historical fiction frame.
Why do we write historical fiction? In part to resurrect ghosts, as Hilary Mantel has said. But it is impossible to write without pondering the nature of history itself: the interplay between historical themes and big characters, the biases at play, the bindweed of mythology on facts. The deeper you go the less you have: what is a fact, anyway?
The frame allows Alderman to overlay her themes of power and gender with another over-arching consideration. Who writes history? And in the writing of it, and the thinking about it, can we ever mitigate against the present being too present, with all its current, urgent preoccupations?
The frame also allows Alderman to throw in some stunning twists, that I am dying to discuss here, but obviously can not. This is why I have told all my female friends that they have six months to read this book, or I will withdraw friendship rights. This is a book you need to talk about. An unforgettable book. Please read it!