The flap copy on my advance edition declares that “Afterland” is a “high-concept feminist thriller that Lauren Beukes fans have been waiting for.” It is a thriller, I grant you that, and feminist in the sense that most of the men have been erased by a flu virus that develops into prostate cancer, but Beukes is too wise and story-oriented to wham away at ideas that have been thoroughly explored, sometimes at tedious length, on cable news and social media. She lets her tale do the talking, and the results are quite splendid... According to Beukes, AIDS killed 39 million globally, and the Spanish flu may have taken out 50 million. Covid-19 hasn’t brought us even close to the manpocalypse of which Beukes writes with such verve and mordant wit. How can you not fall in love with a book where the P.P.E.-wearing scientists tasked with discovering a vaccine are called plague-o-nauts and there’s a government bureau dealing with PMdFs, or Previously Male-dominated Fields?
The big ideas work because the form is whizz-bang, bam-bam. It rattles along at breakneck speed, appropriately enough for a novel about people on the run. Beukes’ gift is to write page turning books that have serious political themes. Afterland manages the tricky balance of being direct and discrete at one and the same time. It is also two books – one a series of near-misses and a dreadful nemesis; the other a sly exposure of inequalities. In some ways it is even more daring than The Shining Girls, in that things are not so great when the women are in charge.