In Benobi’s (After, 2005, as Claire Tristram) allegorical novel, a mysterious toxin turning people into animals turns out to be a sign of the Apocalypse.
There’s something ominous about a yellow fog rolling into California from the south. It suddenly appears at the same time that Stella King, a pregnant young woman, runs away from her aunt’s home (her mother is in jail and her father’s not in the picture). Stella hitches a ride with a woman named Margie Peach to Nethalem on San Francisco Bay, where her boyfriend, Lix Tetrax, who’s also the baby’s father, is waiting. Meanwhile, a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control identifies the yellow cloud as a chemical agent called Agent-T, which is also cropping up throughout the rest of the country. Its origins are unknown, but it’s physically transforming people into animals (who retain their human minds), and girls and women appear to be particularly susceptible. Margie, for example, becomes a dog, while waitress Wanda Lubiejewski’s unexpected metamorphosis into a bear scares her cheating husband into arming himself for protection. Stella, meanwhile, hears stories of people rioting, cities on fire, and “Angels” and “Beasts” engaged in war on Earth. Fate puts Stella, Margie, and Wanda together, along with U.S. Air Force Maj. Eureka Yamanaka, caregiver Mary Mbwembwe, and Nethalem villager Josefina Guzman. All undergo changes, physical and otherwise; Wanda, for instance, garners new emotional strength as her preteen daughter’s protector. But the End of Days is upon them, as the book of Revelation has already foretold. Soon, the six women will face off against the being who may be behind the Apocalypse.
Benobi’s story offers wonderfully surreal moments rich with metaphor, as when signs of Agent-T’s approach create an atmosphere of foreboding; Stella has conversations with her unborn child, who offers warnings about people before Stella encounters them. These scenes are complemented by the author’s illustrations throughout, which resemble sketches from an artist’s notebook. The pictures, while vibrant and fully comprehensible, are typically unrealistic, depicting Mary with thin, squiggly arms, for instance, with an eye floating above the rest of her face. Benobi also fills her pages with powerful themes, particularly exploring the ways that a male-dominated society treats and views women. These can sometimes be too on-the-nose; for example, Wanda believes people will react to her bear self with fear and hate, unnecessarily adding that it’s what “humans often do when confronted with a creature that they can’t control or dominate.” Nevertheless, such comments have merit, as when Stella notes that women in many religions tend to get “the short end.” Overall, Benobi’s prose is straightforward and concise, with frequent instances of poetry: “Dawn was raw at the edges and the air smelled fresh and washed clean….Life at the moment was rich and full of promise.” The plot effectively establishes how the various players’ paths are destined to intersect, and anticipation of these distinctive women’s inevitable interactions propels the story forward.
A fantasy tale with unforgettable characters and a convincing, insightful message.