A slow-burn story about a mother and son on the run, Lauren Beukes’ dystopian thriller Afterland contains some of the most impressive prose I’ve come across recently. It’s a feminist critique of patriarchal society written from the least likely angle: by killing all the men.
This book is the second pandemic novel I’ve read this year. While I don’t want to do the author a disservice by comparing it to current events, I will say that what once might have read as a surreal, Palahniukian story about humanity at its most extreme instead reads as frighteningly plausible.
In Afterland, Cole’s husband is dead. But then, so are 3.2 billion ‘men, boys and people-with-prostates’. No one knew that the flu-like human Culgoa virus was an oncovirus, one that would mutate prostate cells into an aggressive and unstoppable cancer, killing 99% of the global male population by 2023. But incredibly, her son Miles survived, and now they are being detained in an American government facility.
Cole’s usually unreliable sister Billie shows up with a plan to escape from the government and return to their home in South Africa. But when Cole realises that the plan involves exploiting her son for cash, she leaves Billie for dead and finds herself on the run with Miles, desperate to find a way home.
Beukes has created a thought-provoking vision of the future with anarchist communes, cult-like religious movements and the collapse of ‘penis-centric’ industry. The government has responded to the oncovirus with training programs for women and heavy-handed legislation to protect the remaining male population, including a ban on procreation.
While this makes for an engaging read, it’s Beukes’ character writing that I found remarkable. Afterland alternates between the perspectives of Cole, her son Miles and her sister Billie, each with a distinct internal dialogue that together feels like a study in character psychology. I’m no stranger to multiple POVs in fiction, but never have I seen it executed so well. Cole’s often humorous thoughts are haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, Miles’ chapters are littered with pubescent confusion and pop culture references, while Billie is a concussed egotist, feverish and angry.
“See you later, alligator. Waiter-hater-masturbator-violator-sister-traitor. Perpetrator.”
In addition to expertly creating three distinct voices, Beukes’ writing is beautiful, intimate and claustrophobic, ranging from flowing, descriptive prose to stark, economic imagery.
“Another moan. Animal self-pity. Clumps of hair. Sharp bits against her fingertips. She brings her hand to her face to look. Little black pits in the blood on her fingers, which is shockingly red. Gravel. Not bone shards. Not a broken skull. Not that bad. But not good either.”
When I read Beukes’ Zoo City back in 2011, it opened my eyes to the potential of speculative fiction and influenced the type of sci-fi and fantasy that I would become interested in. With Afterland, Beukes has again raised my expectations of spec fic. This is the kind of book that will have even the most modest book club arguing over gender, politics and human rights.
Afterland is currently available in eBook format and will be published in hardback on 3rd September 2020. Many thanks to Michael Joseph UK and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.