I pre-ordered Lauren Beukes’ AFTERLAND before lockdown without knowing anything about the book. I’ve been a fan of hers for years — ZOO CITY, THE SHINING GIRLS * and BROKEN MONSTERS are all worth your time — so I was very excited for her new book. Unfortunately, AFTERLAND didn’t hit my local bookstore until late July.
Around August I glanced at the summary on the slipcover and saw it was a post-pandemic thriller and I immediately shoved it to the bottom of my to-read queue because, for obvious reasons, I didn’t need that at that time.
April rolls around and folks are getting vaccinated. I’ve re-watched 12 MONKEYS (the TV show), THE LEFTOVERS, read and watched SPONTANEOUS, and given the fact that all three of those pieces deal with pandemics and/or the collective grief of dealing with unknown, uncountable deaths, I thought: “Hey, maybe I’m ready to read AFTERLAND now!”
I was not. The book jumps back-and-forth in time, starting with the post-pandemic present, then back to the unknown of the pandemic: a virus that only affects men with a single-Y chromosome which then induces a particularly aggressive, deadly type of prostate cancer. Beukes absolutely nails a lot of the details of living within a pandemic, the uncertainty, the hysterical actions some take, the social fallout.
I imagine that sort of exactitude is a cold comfort for Beukes, as I doubt sales were strong because of the material, which is a damn shame. I’m tempted to say that she read Brian K. Vaughan’s Y THE LAST MAN and exclaimed: ‘This is bullshit! Women wouldn’t act like that!’ and decided to pen her own version. (Given Beukes’ experience in comics, I’m doubtful AFTERLAND was so reactionary, but she does allude to Vaughan’s series.)
Once you can get over the haunting foretelling of Beukes’ pandemic, you can revel in the compelling characters in AFTERLAND, all women except for protagonist Cole’s son, Miles. Cole is one flawed mother, but AFTERLAND seems to give Beukes permission to write absolute shit-heel women, which is exactly what Billie, Cole’s sister, is. There’s a fantastic familial push-and-pull that weaves its way through the novel’s cat-and-mouse game.
It’s great, character-forward speculative fiction that, while it’s a rough read in these times — and probably will be for some time — if you can stomach it, you’ll be rewarded.
- THE SHINING GIRLS is slated to be an Apple TV+ mini-series starring Elisabeth Moss, although I haven’t heard whether it’s entered production yet.