Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty lays out a fascinating dystopian forecast and presents a world which must adapt to the loss of the female sex. The novella is not your average dystopia, rather, it belongs in a kind of anti-genre called the New Weird, where boundaries between horror, science fiction, dystopia and speculative fiction are blurred and crossed. With this brave and engaging premise, Whiteley has written a novella that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished reading, embedding itself in your consciousness and raising new questions every day. So many strands and layers of thought are provoked in this concise and beautifully written novella.
The story is told from the point of view of Nathan, a member of a commune who had separated from society even before the loss of women. He is the resident storyteller-
‘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’.
His stories help the community to remain sane in the face of tragedy and their own seemingly unavoidable doom. The process of telling the stories forces Nathan to question not just his own nature but the nature of truth and memory and gender. He begins to become less certain of what he knows and what is accepted. Reflecting on the past and his memories changes them upon each revisiting. Remembering women alters them and affects his own conception of gender. Then the Beauties rise from the ground - they are ambiguous mushroom creatures in a feminine mould. Their arrival forces the whole commune to re-evaluate what it knows. They must either unite and move forward or fracture beyond repair.
As readers we are encouraged to consider a myriad of issues. What happens to the ‘male’ and the ‘masculine’ when the female/feminine is gone? When it perhaps does not need to define itself so stringently against something? What it means to be male literally begins to evolve in The Beauty – as the Beauties infiltrate the camp, it is the men who start to reproduce. If women did die out, what would the next stage in evolution be? How would a male body adapt? The arrival of the Beauties prompts this deconstruction of male identity.
As Nathan puts it:
‘I was sixteen when they all died and I thought I understood this loss, but it comes to me that I didn’t know what women gave to the world. It wasn’t about their lips, their eyes or the gentle quality of their voices. It was about the way that all men are a part of them. And now we are part of nothing.’
It has been speculated that some varieties of mushroom, such as Lion’s Mane, have regenerative or nerve healing properties. Are the Beauties come to heal the damage done to the male population, while forging new neurological and physical connections?
‘There are signs of change, of regeneration, and I saw the first mushrooms in the graveyard on the morning after I ripped up the photograph of my mother’s face and threw the pieces over the cliff, into the fat swallowing folds of the sea.’
The virus wiped out women and seems to resurrect them as something other. On one level The Beauty is a dystopian negotiation of Otherness and how a community set in their ways can react to a foreign entity. Some feel threatened and afraid and respond violently. Others embrace the change. The tensions rise and the micro-society they have created begins to unravel. The potential dystopian mushroom motif could draw from certain mushroom characteristics – that they require preformed matter to live and mostly deteriorate whatever it is they feed off. To live they must destroy. This ties in with the idea of a post-apocalyptic struggle for existence. In a similar way, as the Beauties attach themselves to male partners, the male body begins to change (the genitals deteriorate). Men like Nathan encourage the integration and acceptance of these processes. The full extent of the changes can only be imagined beyond the end of the book.
Published by exciting and upcoming publisher Unsung Stories, The Beauty is unforgettable. It is startling and original, daring and considered. The language flows beautifully, a celebration as well as an exploration of the art of storytelling. In dystopian style it ends somewhat ambiguously, appropriately so, with the future uncertain. Take the time to let this novella affect you. It may be short but it latches onto you like a virus (of the best variety) and prays on your mind.
*thank you to my friend Richard Stenner for his fungi expertise!