Monday, February 7, 2011

The past was Before. The present is Aftertime.

by Sophie Littlefield

Once upon a time, monsters were the stuff of b-movies and campfire tales, and could safely be ignored. And ignore them I did. Last year, a slew of authors got me to believe enough in their science-based vampires to be frightened. It seems that this may be the year of the zombie for me. Not the Voodoo, risen from the dead, magical kind, but the scary, all-too-real, disease-transmitting kind. Sophie Littlefield’s kind.

Ms. Littlefield, it seems, doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Her latest novel, Aftertime, is a radical departure from anything we’ve seen previously. The first-person narrator is Cass Dollar. Cass has awakened after an indeterminate period of time, badly wounded, in clothes she has never seen before. As she seeks to orient herself, so does the reader. We discover that Cass lives in the near future in Northern California . The details of what happened to Cass, and to the country, are somewhat sketchy, and sussing them out is part of the pleasure of the novel. (There are details, but I don’t want to spoil them for you.) What is clear is that something led to a disease. Many of the old and young died outright. But surviving the initial fever was a far worse fate. It is the diseased survivors that have become zombie-like cannibals—predators, killers, and spreaders of disease.

Cass awakens in a terrible state. She partially remembers being attacked, and given her appearance, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that she was turned. Certainly, she has lost time. But far, far worse, she has lost her three-year-old daughter. Finding Ruthie is Cass’s quest. The reader navigates this altered, post-apocalyptic landscape alongside her, and Cass’s voyage of discovery becomes ours.

In many cases, empathy with the central character will carry you through a book. I have to admit that I didn’t really relate to Cass. I share neither of her most distinguishing and motivating characteristics: motherhood and addiction. Cass isn’t a warm and fuzzy character. (I’m pretty sure the warm and fuzzy have died off in this harsh world.) But I cared about her, and I cared about her quest. I was with her in horrified fascination every step of the way.

Leading up to the startling final pages of this book, I thought to myself: All bets are off. I had no idea what Littlefield was going to do, up to and including kill off her narrator. She managed to pull off one of those great endings that made me feel completely satisfied as though the story had been told. And yet…

I wondered. Has the whole story been told? Certainly, I’m still curious about a lot of what went on Before. And while Cass’s tale came to a satisfying conclusion without annoying hanging threads, it’s a brave new world. There are surely more tales to be told. I was curious enough to make inquiries, and I learned that Aftertime is, in fact, the first of a trilogy. Excellent!


  1. Well, I like post-apocalyptic books, but I think I will have to hold off on reading this one. You definitely make it sound worth reading, but I am in too sensitive a place to read something about a woman losing her three year old daughter and trying desperately to find her. (I learned this lesson when I read Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper" - gave me scary night sweats for months afterwards. Still get the heebie-jeebies thinking about it.)
    So, I'll put this one on the tbr list for when my girls are older - quite a bit older. =)

  2. Hey Carolyn,

    Good to hear from you! And I know what you mean. Some books and movies just hit a nerve. I'm not a parent, and don't even especially like kids, but I can't read about the death of a child. John Irving has spent a career channeling his parental fears into his novels. Imperiled children are a big theme with him, and yet he's my favorite author.

    Anyway, I see your point, but if you see Aftertime in the store, give it a look. I mean, there's significant difference between the realism of a Picoult or an Irving, and this sort of post-apocolyptic tale. I'm not sure the book would give you the same maternal heebie jeebies. (It would give you different non-maternal ones, LOL.)

  3. Wonderful review and it only backs up a few other reviews I've seen for this book. I know I'm going to need to read this. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, WB! Speaking of great reviews, I just saw that Aftertime got a starred review in PW. It's an absolute rave. There does seem to be a growing concensus on this one. Do check it out; I'll look forward to seeing your review.