A mother and son traverse America, on the run and trying to get home
Most of the men are dead. Three years after the pandemic known as The Manfall, governments still hold and life continues — but a world run by women isn’t always a better place.
Twelve-year-old Miles is one of the last boys alive, and his mother, Cole, will protect him at all costs. On the run after a horrific act of violence-and pursued by Cole’s own ruthless sister, Billie — all Cole wants is to raise her kid somewhere he won’t be preyed on as a reproductive resource or a sex object or a stand-in son. Someplace like home.
To get there, Cole and Miles must journey across a changed America in disguise as mother and daughter. From a military base in Seattle to a luxury bunker, from an anarchist commune in Salt Lake City to a roaming cult that’s all too ready to see Miles as the answer to their prayers, the two race to stay ahead at every step… even as Billie and her sinister crew draw closer.
I’ve been looking forward to Lauren Beukes’s Afterland since it was first announced a couple of years ago. A long-time fan of the author’s work, I had pretty high expectations for the novel. I’m glad to report that I was not disappointed. An interesting novel, with protagonists you’ll root for and plenty of interesting social and cultural observations.
Cole and Miles/Mila are interesting guides to this post-pandemic America: South African, they were in the States because Cole’s husband, Devon is American and was also back for work. However, the HCV (Human Culgoa Virus) pandemic hit and 99% of men (worldwide, not just in the US) are wiped out — painfully, too, as Beukes paints a gruesome fate for all the men who succumb. As foreigners adrift in a strange and suddenly dramatically different land, albeit one that nevertheless exhibits many of America’s familiar worst tendencies, they offer an outsider’s perspective that is sharply observed and written. I also really enjoyed their interactions and relationship — it was fun, touching, and very real (all things considered). You really root for them, as they make their way across the States, bouncing from one difficult/dangerous situation to the next.
Also in the mix is Cole’s sister, Billie, who starts the novel awakening after being knocked unconscious by her sister. The backstory is filled out as the novel progresses, and we learn the differences between the two sisters, as well as their dramatically different life choices and paths. I didn’t enjoy Billie’s chapters as much as I did Cole’s and Miles’s, but she adds another interesting and different perspective of this new reality.
Given certain aspects of the subject matter, notably the fact that it’s men who are dying from the HCV, I was quickly put in mind of Brain K. Vaughan’s Y the Last Man, and Beukes includes a quick nod to that series in an interlude:
“You could lock yourself in a bunker in solitary confinement and only breathe your own recycled air, or maybe our astronauts are safe, like in that comic book…”
The subject matter is at times rather close to reality — the details about the pandemic, for example, and the snippets of news and other media have strong echoes of 2020 (conspiracy theories and all!). This made for a pretty interesting read, but also an at times more unsettling than expected read. If you’re a little pandemic’d-out, though, you may want to wait until life is a little more normal. If you do pick it up, though, you’ll find an engaging mother-son survival-road trip tale.
The author’s writing is excellent throughout, and the pacing is pretty good throughout (it’s not a break-neck thriller). It is also a novel that suggests that, no matter the pandemic/disaster, we can expect both the best and worst of humanity to be amplified, and in the case of the latter, in depressingly familiar ways.
Overall, then, I’d recommend this to all fans of Beukes’s past work and also fans of novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and other fiction in the post-pandemic sub-genre.