BOOK REVIEW: Lauren Beukes’ Afterland
Frighteningly prescient new fiction
In a coincidence of associated ideas, snippets from two political and feminist writers crossed with my reading of the new book by SA’s pedigreed supernatural/sci-fi/ suspense novelist Lauren Beukes, Afterland (Umuzi, Penguin Random House).
First a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: "Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men." Then an interview with Lucy Ellmann, whose book Mimi ends with a matriarchal call to arms to save the world: "Now that we’re in a climate emergency, the closer we can get to zero births, the better."
In Afterland, set in 2023, women have won the gender power struggle by default, because almost the entire male population has been wiped out by a cancer-causing virus.
And, matching Ellmann’s wish, there is a "reprohibition". All surviving males are quarantined to save them and retain hope for humanity’s future procreation, but until a cure or vaccine is discovered, no more children can be brought into the world.
Nicole (Cole) Brady’s nearly 13-year-old son, Miles, is one of a tiny number of surviving, immune males. The family were visiting US relatives when the virus exploded. Her brother-in-law got sick, then her husband, then men and boys died en masse, "and then no-one was flying anywhere". After three years of being held in US facilities — tests on Miles, then involuntary and unending quarantine — Cole is desperate to return home to Joburg and attempt to rediscover some form of new normal. "You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months. You just can’t," she agonises.
Besides the conceptual premise, small snippets are also clairvoyantly up to date: a shop sign apologises for being out of hand sanitiser; Black Lives Matter protest references are sprinkled in; when a police squadron surrounds Cole and Miles, a nearby black family cower, expecting they are being targeted.
Reading this is surreal — and all too real. Beukes’s speculative, outlandish vision is prescience as art, so uncanny that I inquire whether Beukes actually wrote, frantically, at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. I’m put in my place: she spent five years conceptualising and researching the effects of a pandemic. "I finished writing it in March 2019 and then spent another six months editing it, but it was done and dusted by November 2019," she says.
Beukes specialises in the white-knuckle, the riveting. She’s probably best known for The Shining Girls (2013), a paranormal horror story to rival anything Stephen King has written.
Afterland is less nerve-shredding, but is still a rollercoaster read, albeit with a simple plotline. Cole and Miles escape from quarantine, but her son is coveted cargo, so she must shield him from multiple antagonists.
Contrary to Ellmann’s vision, the new matriarchy is much the same as the preceding patriarchy: power-hungry, controlling, avaricious.
Cole shape-shifts Miles’s gender to Mila to hide in plain sight, fleeing from the government intent on recapturing a male specimen; from the threat of criminals who would traffic him or his sperm; from Cole’s duplicitous and parasitic sister hellbent on selling him to an underworld associate.
Cole must also resist the well-meaning but tightening clutches of the flamboyant nuns of the Church of All Sorrows, who have allowed Cole and Mila to travel with them in their proselytising missions but who Cole intuits will deify Miles as a spiritual saviour if they discover his true gender.
And, like all impressionable teenagers, a degree of protection from self is needed. Partly, Stockholm syndrome is sucking Miles/Mila into the Church of All Sorrows’ ambit but badly timed teen spirit is also at play. Cole needs to urgently bridge a growing divide between mother and early-adolescent son.
These diverse threats aggregate into a race against time to catch a smuggler’s boat from Miami. As the pursuers close in, in mind’s eye Cole is Linda Hamilton’s kick-ass, heroic mother in The Terminator — with unwaveringly protective instincts and unremitting mettle.
Cole’s and Miles’s/Mila’s flight also harkens the wronged but steely, determined women in Thelma and Louise, their road trip across America set in a time and place of pervasive doom and dread, a nation gone to seed, still beautiful and characterful, but rundown, ghostly, and sometimes scary. Again, the way of things now — a diminished and dishonoured America.
Thus, Afterland is also an obliquely political novel, integrating the mortifying dystopia which we are glimpsing in how Covid-19 is triggering economic devastation, emotional distancing, and encroaching authoritarianism.
But even in our current context Afterland is less about power or the politics of a post-apocalypse; it’s just a damnably pacey thriller, an elemental struggle between protective, nurturing motherhood and the baser instincts of human nature.
What it lacks in plot complexity it makes up in ingenuity, taut language, captivating mood, and enthralling imagery. "Doubt is the devil’s crowbar," Cole intones as she seeks to refocus and reset her "sandpapered" nerves.
"It’s not for sissies, taking on the sorrows of the world."
This is the not-so-new feminist zeitgeist. A compulsive, prophetic page-turner, Afterland ends with exactly what we need now — a faint but boldly feminist flicker of hope.
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