Lauren Beukes’ Afterland tells an eerily real post-pandemic tale of a mother, son and sister trying to live in a world without men. It’s beautiful and scary and an absolute must-read. Especially now.
The Plot in a Nutshell
A virus has killed 99% of all men. Including Cole’s husband (Miles’ father). When it is discovered that Miles, Cole’s 12-year-old son, is immune to the virus, the American government hold him and his mother in a facility. Cole, along with her sister Billie, plan an escape.
However, Billie has another motive, to sell Miles’ sperm to the highest bidder and Cole ends up wounding her sister in the getaway.
So, they’re on the run. Cole and Miles want to get back home to South Africa while Billie wants to re-capture Miles and deliver him to the buyer. It’s a race against time and across America, visiting cities that are unrecognisable without men.
Along the way Cole and Miles meet an assortment of eclectic people who either help or hinder their progress, including a group of religious fanatic nuns who take them into their fold, not knowing Miles (who they call Mila) is a boy, not a girl.
Billie, on the hunt for her sister and injured terribly, is accompanied by two women who work for the same boss lady, Mrs A, who are there to keep her in check.
Each need to reach their goal – get home or get the boy.
Wow, where to start? Firstly, with the narration. The book is told from three perspectives: Cole, Miles and Billie. Cole, arguably the main character, is a mother who will do anything to protect her son (oddly, like the Honey and the Sting, which I read before this.) She is driven by a force that is stronger than greed or pain: love for Miles. Her drive is heart-pounding and her voice is wonderfully sarcastic and witty, but she is also plagued by the guilt of something that the reader knows she didn’t do – I loved reading her. Miles also tells his side. Writing from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy must have been tricky, but Beukes pulls it off, the moody teenager really comes to life. Billie is a super interesting addition and I’m so please Beukes chose to include her voice. She’s the younger “rebellious” sister who has gotten herself into something that she can’t get out of, she’s in deep and her chapters are all very tense and thrilling.
The premise is so poignant right now. Though of course COVID doesn’t just affect men, and it doesn’t kill 99% of them, but it’s still interesting to think about consequences of a more devastating pandemic. I love that Beukes flashes back so we can see the immediate aftermath of the virus and we get to meet Devon, Miles’ dad, Cole’s husband.
Speaking of which, I love the imagery here. As the characters pass through the states and cities, each one has a different feel, colouring and presence. People everywhere have reacted differently to the disappearance of men and each community is unique. For example, we have the group of fanatical nuns that Cole and Miles join on their way to Florida – it’s clear that this is how some would react to a pandemic – clinging to the idea of God to move them forward.
The other thing that Beukes doesn’t shy away from is how sex and sexuality is affected by this. Miles, being immune, is now seen as a commodity. Men are needed to repopulate, but at only 12 he doesn’t even bear to think about this – he’s only now coming to terms with his own sexual feelings.
Yes, the book is a slow-burner. It’s a longish read and some may not enjoy the pace, but I did. I like the Beukes didn’t rush through the story in order to create a “thriller”, it was a slow and dark dystopia, and that’s totally my jam. Perfect for those who enjoyed the Handmaid’s Tale or VOX. I highly recommend.