The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (2014, Unsung Stories) is a book to be read and re-read, a story of beauty and horror, a story about stories. The seeds—better put, spores—of a dark and loaded tale are present in the novella’s opening paragraphs: ominous mushrooms in the graveyard, the death of all women, the importance of timing, the manipulative nature of stories—both of the storyteller exerted on the story and of the story exerted on the listener.
Women have died out as a result of a fungal infection that spread from the womb. The men of what was once a self-sufficient collective of sorts have been left to their lonely existence, feeding on stories of the past told by the narrator Nathan.
“Miriam died early, one of the first, with the yellow fungus thick on her nose and tongue. It crawled out from her womb and down her legs.” (2)
The womb, the source of evil. Women’s bodies as unclean, diseased. From the start we see the foundations of an unspoken misogyny laid out in the symbolic possibilities of the situation. Strange mushrooms have begun to grow wherever an infected woman was buried, and our narrator, our storyteller, is determined to bend these facts into a tale with a happy ending.
“I must find new ways to turn the truth into stories. The graveyard bears more mushrooms, clustering in soft wet shapes, yellow folds and rivulets, in the outlines of the women beneath the soil. It must mean something good. William must be made to see it.”
Dead women haunt the settlement in the form of these mushrooms. Are they a psychosis, a reminder to the men of what has happened? Have the women really been killed by a fungus? Or by something—metaphorically at least—more banally sinister? Though The Beauty never answers these questions directly, metaphorically this book is about far more than a fungal plague and a group of survivors. It bears so little in common with most entries into the post-apocalyptic genre that it didn’t occur to me that it could, technically, be shelved there until long after I had finished.
Strange events follow the appearance of the mushrooms in the graveyard and the forest, and though the men remain free of disease, they begin a kind of role reversal to the more (stereotypically) assigned feminine. The novella’s images are surreal and haunting, and I was not surprised to see it on the Shirley Jackson Award nominee list.
Despite the fact that there are no female characters, only the memories of men and their imperfect retellings of women’s lives, The Beauty is an utterly feminist text, and with thoughts about gender, sexuality, and beauty to unpack in almost every line. I am still trying to untangle the knots I found there, to figure out what is all means, and this lack of clear-cut answers may annoy those looking for a concrete statement. Though hardly a slog to read, The Beauty rewards the reader for the effort. I look forward to re-reading it and to seeing what Whiteley comes up with next.
Five out of six bulbous mushrooms.
Now would be a good time to thank me for not making an “it really grows on you” joke. Because I came very close.
Where I got it: Sent by the publisher for review
Read more reviews of The Beauty:
On A Universe in Words: “Whiteley manages to do is deconstruct gender roles down to the very core of what we consider masculine and feminine and then twist it around until the reader finds himself questioning everything. … Whiteley’s writing is captivating. It lulls you into a sense of security with its normalcy before hitting you with the strangeness of the events. ”
On Exquisite Corpse: “‘The Beauty’ is an exemplary representation of New Weird, a subgenre variously described as ‘cutting edge speculative fiction with a literary slant’, a borderless combination of science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror, and fiction that “subverts clichés of the fantastic in order to put them to discomfiting, rather than consoling ends.” It is exquisitely crafted, astonishingly creative, and discomfiting as hell.”
On Speculiction: “Feeling perfectly like the love child of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer, Whiteley uses fungal bizarreness in a dark woodland setting to overlay a story hitting a couple major touch points of feminism and gender relations.”