I have never spent much of my life thinking about mushrooms. You can eat some sorts, you can’t eat other sorts, there was a biology lesson, I think, about them, but I don’t really remember anything about it, one sort is drugs that make you see colours or something. They are just there. You shouldn’t touch them, except the ones you can eat, the ones in supermarkets.
Having just finished The Beauty I know I will never look at a mushroom in the same way again. No, more than that: I will never look at a mushroom again without thinking about The Beauty, Aliya Whiteley’s ridiculously wonderful novel about society and gender and nature and, well, mushrooms.
In an specified near-future the entire female population has been wiped out by a fungal infection. (OK, so ‘fungal infection’ is underselling this a little. We are talking mushrooms growing everywhere, not athlete’s foot in extremis.) The men live on, aware that they are the last generation. The novel concentrates on a small group of men, isolated from the rest of the world, a former commune where a resigned peace has settled. Crops are grown, life will go on for a decade or three. Then, something begins to grow from the graves of the dead women and…
And I don’t want to give away any more of the story.
It is rare in these nothing-is-shocking seen-it-all-before times that a book can make you think ‘that is some seriously messed up shit right there, ooh yes that is lovely’ but that is exactly what I thought while reading this novel. I don’t want to lessen the effect for those of you who decide to read it (hint: this should be all of you).
Aliya Whiteley’s novels have always had elements of the speculative but this is a move into genre proper. The Beauty is not science fiction though. It is far closer to being a fairy tale (but think Grimm in its unedited original, not Disney). It is grotesque and twisted but also wondrous. It is impossible but also impossibly true. It says important and uncomfortable things about gender and society and humanity’s relationship with nature and how and why we tell stories and at least a dozen other things. It has a logic of its own, both true to this world and the one it has created. It packs more into a hundred pages than most writers manage in a career. It gets under your skin. It festers. It’s a little bit special.
Any Cop?: The Beauty is dark but, like a mushroom, it creates something beautiful from the dank it draws its nutrients from. This is a brilliant novel (novella?) that can be read in an afternoon but will stay with you for a lifetime. It’s a humdinger.