Book review: In Lauren Beukes's 'Afterland,' a mother and son go on the run in a post-pandemic America
"Afterland" by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland)
Is dystopian fiction timely or just too much these days?
Your response probably depends on whether you want the novels you read to mirror, in some refracted way, "how we live now" or whether you yearn to escape into other lives, wider horizons.
I'm unapologetically in the latter category. So the new dystopian suspense novel, "Afterland," by Lauren Beukes, did not instantly call to me. Given that it's being promoted by its publishers as "'The Children of Men' meets 'The Handmaid's Tale,'" "Afterland" promised a descent into pandemic despair.
But Beukes is such an idiosyncratic writer -- one who deftly mashes up suspense, sci-fi, horror, time travel, and, yes, dystopian fiction -- that she's hard to ignore. Like P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, to whom she was implicitly compared in that over-the-top blurb, Beukes often spotlights strong female characters plowing their way through harrowing situations.
For instance, "Broken Monsters," her 2014 thriller, is set in the all-too-real economic wasteland of Detroit, where a female detective tracks a killer with a flair for arranging his murder victims in tableaus reminiscent of "The Island of Dr. Moreau." "Afterland" is less grisly than its predecessor, but perhaps eerier since it imagines a world changed utterly by a pandemic. The premise of Beukes's novel differs from our current reality in one crucial way: Her deadly virus infects only male victims. In "Afterland," the future is female.
The present time of "Afterland" is 2023, three years after the pandemic first struck. (Another unsettling coincidence.) A woman named Cole (short for Nicole) and her adolescent son, Miles (one of the less-than-1 percent of males worldwide who are immune to the virus), are on the run in a hot-wired car. The pair are speeding away from a deceased tech mogul's luxurious estate, which has been commandeered by "The Department of Men" as a locked quarantine facility for surviving men and boys and their female relatives. (Miles at one point thinks of this and an earlier facility he's been housed in as "a boy zoo.")
As will become clear, mother and son are fleeing not only their government minders, but also Cole's devious sister, Billie. She turned up at the quarantine center, ostensibly to be reunited with family, but really to kidnap her young nephew whose, um, emissions will fetch big money on the underground market catering to wealthy women desperate to be impregnated with virus-proof sperm.
What ensues is a suspenseful and intricate on-the-road adventure, told from the alternating perspectives of Cole, Billie and Miles. Or make that "Mila." For, as soon as Cole and Miles make a pit stop at an abandoned gas station, Cole insists that Miles don a pink T-shirt, skinny jeans and glittery barrettes in his "afro curls" to disguise himself as a girl. Miles is mixed-race; his late father was African American, and Cole is a white South African. When the pandemic erupted, the family was stranded in the United States in the midst of a vacation at Disneyland.
Cole's goal is to smuggle herself and Miles back to their home in Johannesburg, where they have friends and the situation seems more orderly. Setting out from the West Coast, they must make it to Florida where the possibility of escape awaits. Along the way, the pair will find shelter in an abandoned golf development; crash with an anarchist commune; and ultimately join a cult of religious penitents for cover. Everywhere in this contemporary "Herland," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 utopian novel about an all-female society, women carry machine guns, issue orders, and generally belie the fantasy that a matriarchal society would be kinder and gentler.
The long section of "Afterland" devoted to life amid the kooky cultists drags somewhat; but overall Beukes imbues what could have simply been a sensational thriller with psychological depth and sharp detail. Here, for instance, is the opening scene in the bathroom of that derelict gas station:
"Miles is still shaking, his thin arms wrapped around his rib cage, ... and his eyes keep jerking back to the door. ... [Cole], too, is expecting the door to burst open. It feels inevitable that they'll be found and dragged back. She'll be arrested. Miles will be taken away. In America, they steal kids from their parents. This was true even before all this.
"In the shards of mirror, her skin tone is gray. ... She looks scared. Cole doesn't want [Miles] to see that. Maybe that's what superheroes are concealing behind the masks: not their secret identities, but the fact that they're scared ..."
That excerpt is a good "patch test" for prospective readers of "Afterland": If the last thing you want to think about are surprise attacks and masks, perhaps a cozy Golden Age British mystery might be a better choice. But for those whose taste for dystopian suspense is undiminished, Beukes's tale of a mother and son making their way across a post-pandemic-ravaged landscape is prescient and taut.