I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my ability to steer clear of pandemic fiction and non-fiction throughout lockdown. However, when the opportunity to read and review Afterland by Lauren Beukes I just had to make an exception. I’ll discuss this further below, but the concept of this sounded so intriguing that I just had to give it a read. As a medical humanities academic researcher, I’m sure you can imagine my intrigue to receive a book focusing on an oncovirus which has killed most men through prostate cancer. I’m so excited to be taking part in the blog tour for Afterland.
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.
As this narrative focuses heavily on gender, and identity as discussed during adolescence, I would recommend looking into own voices reviews from trans readers if you’re looking to see how this is handled within the narrative. I did see a few mentions of how this particular form of pandemic affected the trans community throughout, however, I’m not in a position to comment on this inclusion.
I have to say the highlight of this reading experience remains the overarching concept. Its central focus is on an oncovirus has killed most men through prostate cancer, however, it also features genetic research interconnecting the expectations of the mother’s genetics to protect the men who have become, seemingly randomly, survivors of this overpowering threat. There are also sanctions on pregnancy which introduces a black market featured on reproduction. Reading about this, and its interconnection with Billie’s motivations, was my personal highlight as it truly raised the stakes and laced the proceedings with a dark, seedy undertone which I just lived for throughout Billie’s perspective chapters. I’d love to do a deep dive reading this alongside The Handmaid’s Tale to investigate the comparisons which are consistently made between the two.
The concept of only a few men surviving was intriguing, however, I will say here that this narrative as a whole is very centralised and committed to its focus on these three individual characters. I loved the idea of following Miles as he enters his teenage years, whilst disguised as a girl to aid his mum on the run and reflects on his status as one of the few survivors. However, I must admit that, especially as he shares the narrative with his mum who’s organising their escapades, the narrative became slightly overcrowded and, as Miles had already been in a facility with either fellow survivors or female children with surviving uncles, fathers etc, the space dedicated to these reflections quickly diminished. I feel the narrative could have benefited from the perspective of a, perhaps adult, male who could isolate the shocked to a relatively stable mental state of a survivor.
Alongside their current perceptions of the pandemic, I thoroughly enjoyed the insight Beukes offers of Cole’s and Billie’s past as they recall, quite amusingly contrasting in places, their childhood in South Africa including the resulting family reunions in America with Miles. Disputed history and judgement of the current situation were the cementing themes between the two sisters maintained the intrigue throughout.
I found the perfect combination of 2020 realism and the author’s ingenuity. I have seen interviews in which Beukes discusses that this book took years to write and, even without this, as I have some knowledge of the UK publishing industry I don’t think there was any way she could have predicted exactly how close to home some of her lines hit now. I found this combination very interesting and the twist on a global pandemic ensured my interest was maintained and it didn’t become too overwhelming or depressing given the current situation. However, this is dependent on each reader’s current situation and emotional state during this crazy time.
I included above just how centralised this narrative is on the three central characters. I enjoyed the settings and the politics of the black market informing the conflicts, but I was missing the inclusion of the implications for larger political systems, especially given the specifically American setting. Alongside this, I found myself wanting the characters to maintain grey morals and motivations. There were hints and promises throughout, especially in Cole and Billie’s conflicting depictions of each other, that Billie would not be a cut and dry antagonist and that Cole’s mentality would be darker than panic/survival instinct.
My primary issue came in the disjointed timeline. The majority of chapters were current, however, those that did take place in the past jumped across timeframes and, whilst I know that the difference was not astronomical, I didn’t find the character’s voices, and some settings, as distinctive as they needed to be to strike a chord in my reading. This could have been solved by clearer setting and timeframe subtitles at each chapter heading, especially those which brought us back to the present after a jump back, or, in my preference, a reshuffle of the chapters themselves. Apart from the few which detailed pre-pandemic life which was in surprisingly short supply considering, each chapter detailing events preceding Cole and Miles’ cross-country journey read that they could have fitted in the narrative of the present. At that point, I felt these chapters could have formed the beginning and a linear narrative through to the current present.
Unfortunately, in this case, Beuke’s writing did not click with me, however, it can never be denied that it is raw and her creations are strikingly relevant. Overall, there was a lot of promise here and some of it was certainly delivered, especially relating to the central promise.
Afterland by Lauren Beukes is out now in hardback and was published on the 3rd of September 2020 by Penguin Random House.
I was invited to take part in the blog tour by Sriya Varadharajan (Press Officer) who provided all e-book links via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Sriya, Michael Joseph and NetGalley for this opportunity.
None of the links in this article are affiliate links. I have no obligation to post links to retailers or publishers, and I have no financial relationship with them. This is linked for ease of access should you wish to support the author and publisher by purchasing a copy.
Buisness E-Mail: Vickylordreview@gmail.com
Goodreads: Vicky Lord