If you’re ready for a wild ride across an America forever changed by a devastating pandemic, climb aboard “Afterland” by Lauren Beukes. It’s a summer thriller with a mother and son at the center; they’re on the run, pursued by malevolent forces, hoping to cross the border and go home. It’s a lot — but it’s also a lot of fun.
Part of the joy of any post-apocalyptic story is learning the shape of the changed world — think of the first episode of “The Walking Dead,” Rick waking up and frantically wondering what’s happened before he discovers … zombies! No zombies here, but also no details that would spoil the pleasure of discovery. Basically, a pandemic flu has morphed into cancer that swept through the male population of the world. Ninety-nine percent of men and boys have died.
Yet Cole’s tween son Miles is still alive; he’s one of the few who are immune. This makes him both valuable and vulnerable — one end-times cult is trying to destroy all men (which might seem a little over the top, but then again, there are anti-maskers all over the US right now). When we meet Cole, she’s mid-escape from a luxurious, guarded compound. As a disguise, she dresses her son in girl’s clothes and starts calling him Mila in public.
As they drive away, the story threads out into past and present. We learn about the places they’ve come from: first, government locations that gathered the surviving men and their families in hopes of finding a cure, and earlier, seeing their everyday lives before the pandemic. Like author Buekes, Cole is a white woman from South Africa; the character is a graphic artist who met and married a Black American scientist. They’d been visiting his family when the illness took hold and borders were closed. “You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months. You just can’t,” Cole remembers, wishing she could get home to friends and family.
Except she is joined in America by one family member, her sister Billie, who is the rebellious yin to Cole’s mostly rule-abiding yang. A private chef to the uber-wealthy, Billie is charming, self-centered, and good at figuring out the angles; she’s perfectly suited for dealing in the post-pandemic black market. It’s Billie who engineered their escape from the compound, but once Cole understands her son is the commodity his aunt is after, she smacks her sister over the head with a tire iron and takes off.
Mother and son headed down the highway: Any resemblance to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is intentional. Just as in that book, they raid empty homes for food, but, referencing McCarthy’s most gruesome scene, Cole assures Miles, “There are no cannibal bikers, I promise.” [p. 10] For the most part, this society has been sustained — some towns and cities they encounter seem to be mostly intact, just without any male faces; others seem to be trying to remake the world, some for the better, some for the worse. This is a natural tension: Will a world undone by disease be rebuilt by the same old authorities, the ladies with the commune, or the crime family doyenne who says she must be crueler than her dead husband to maintain her power?
The story is told from three points of view: Cole’s, Miles’s and Billie’s. Although Cole thinks she’s killed her sister, Billie is alive. Bleeding, pissed off, and enabled by her underworld connections, Billie is just a few steps behind them, intent on getting Miles for her client. She’s so awful that sometimes it’s hard to sit with her side of the story, but she can be an entrancing villain, often woozy with pain or painkillers and written in the most stylish prose.
As Cole makes her way across America she’s no Furiosa; she just wants to take care of Miles, stay under the authorities’ radar, and somehow get back to South Africa. It’s hard. She doesn’t have money and isn’t particularly good at getting it; she has disguised Miles but there’s always a chance of a slip; she worries about killing her sister, rather than realizing Billie is following close behind. So it makes sense that when she encounters a group of proselytizing nouveau nuns traveling by bus — dressed in long neon dresses as a hypnotic visual mortification — she hands herself over and joins them. It’s a way for her and Miles/Mila to disappear and travel to a border where they might leave for South Africa.
There is so much action packed into the book that a few of its bigger ideas get left unexplored. The racial dynamics of a white mother and her mixed-race child get only glancing mention. The way that Miles/Mila is male but but must perform as female isn’t much explored. And the larger question of what a world almost completely made up of women would be like, how it would be different, is mostly bypassed.
That, in itself, is an idea: If the world were run by women, Beukes seems to be saying, it would look much the same. If you’re lucky enough to have survived a pandemic, just hold your loved ones close and try to get home.
By Lauren Beukes
Little, Brown and Co., 416 pp., $28
Carolyn Kellogg is a former books editor of the Los Angeles Times and can be found online at www.carolynkellogg.com.