“Luxuriate in its company” – The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley

IMG_2022-9-27-132642Aliya Whiteley is probably better known as a writer of fantastical and disturbing short novels like The Beauty, Skyward Inn, Skein Island, Greensmith and The Arrival of Missives. The Secret Life of Fungi is a work of nonfiction she was encouraged to write (we sense) during lockdown.

What we have here are 30 relatively short chapters (the book only clocks in at a couple of hundred pages and includes a comprehensive index, a bibliograohy, a list of dramatis fungi and a section of further reading), with Whiteley taking a light, ruminative dawdle through various aspects of fungi.

To begin with, we found the brevity of the chapters a bit anti-academic – as if this was a person not entirely qualified to write about fungi taking a punt at it anyway. But then, just as she does in her fiction, she won us over. Obviously she has good material to work with – explosive mushrooms and bioluminescent mosses and fungi that has trained itself to eat plastic. But actually the thing we take away from The Secret Life of Fungi is the quality of Whiteley’s writing (as always):

“Pilobalus, also known as the Hat Thrower, looks like an unimpressive yellow-white fuzz, squatting on sheep pats or dung. If you spy it when you are out walking, you probably won’t feel the urge to get too close to it. But it’s only in close-up that the delicate structure is revealed. When viewed separately, the sporangia (the baglike vessels that contain the spores) are sculptures in glass, tiny transparent tadpoles standing on their tails, their heads trained upwards to the sun as they wait for their moment of escape to come.”

Just about the only advice we’d give you in regards to The Secret Life of Fungi (beyond, you know, treat yourself!) is this: don’t wolf it down in a couple of sittings as we did. Take your time. Luxuriate in its company. A chapter here. A chapter there. Let this mushroom teabag stew. That, as my old friend the Punch might tell you, is the way to do it.

Any Cop?: A perfectly decent piece of nonfiction that we suspect will be the kind of thing Whiteley’s fans pore over to see where she goes from here…

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