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Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


Order The Beauty over HERE(USA) or HERE (UK) or directly from the publisher


AUTHOR INFORMATION: Aliya Whiteley writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in The Guardian, Interzone, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit's European Monsters. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice, and won the Drabblecast People's Choice Award in 2007. Her writing is often violent, tender, terrifying and funny. It has garnered much critical praise and provoked discussion.

FORMAT/INFO: Published on September 4, 2014, by Unsung Stories, The Beauty is 112 pages long. Cover Art by Stuart Patience.

I like the unpredictability of the weird fiction. I like ambitious books and a disregard for convention. I dig the sense of unease created by them and the challenges of imagining the unimaginable. The Beauty impressed me enormously with its blend of body-horror, fantasy, magical realism, and deeply unnerving atmosphere. 


My name is Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories. I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past. They crave romance, particularly when autumn sets in and cold nights await them, and so I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, and Val, and other dead women who all once had lustrous hair and never a bad word on their plump limps...Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in a lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown.
The novella starts with a tragedy - a global pandemic has erased the female half of our species. In a small village called The Valley of the Rocks, men and boys live in a rural commune/patriarchy. They know once they die, that’s it, no more humans. No more tales.

Younger boys, including The Beauty’s narrator, Nathan, barely remember the world with women and don’t have a set viewpoint about gender roles. Life goes on, and each of them fulfills a role in their small, hopeless community. Their conception of beauty, especially feminine beauty, differs strongly from ours. When Nathan finds a glossy magazine with a woman pictured on the cover he doesn’t recognize her as beautiful. When he discovers titular Beauties, bizarre and alien fungal creatures most of us would consider grotesque and terrifying, he finds them beautiful. I guess he finds beauty in growth and changes necessary to survive in his world. 

Looking at it from another perspective, Beauty proves that nature will find a way to thrive, whether we like it or not. Nature doesn’t give a damn about humans and their conceptions of beauty, social order, or morality. Beauties are alien, unsettling, and terrifying when they display their force in PG-18 scenes. They’re also fascinating. Their presence in Valley of the Rocks brings both moments of happiness and terror to its male inhabitants. There’s a strong, destructive tension in the community - some inhabitants love Beauties, some hate them, or are afraid of them. And when the first male undergoes a shocking transformation, others react with violence.

Whiteley prose is sparse, rhythmic, and elegant. Instead of spending time describing the world in detail, she shows it through the eyes of Nathan who already knows the world around him. He focuses on emotions and things new to him (and exciting to readers). 

The Beauty plays with ideas about gender roles, humanity, and the shape of our society. It doesn’t shy away from body-horror, grotesque, and violence and contains startling passages. Fungal weirdness isn’t exactly new, but Whiteley took it to extremes. After completing the book, I feel that once the world as we know it ends, and cockroaches take over streets, fungi will join them in their triumph. After all, they’ll have plenty of decaying matter to feast upon.



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