The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, pub. Unsung Stories (ISBN 9781907389238)
The publishing industry has been in transition for the last few years, and the changes have gone so far, so fast that its evolution has come to feel more like a revolution to those who never quite fit the old model. Part of that (of course) is the rise of electronic publishing, but of increasing importance is the growth of the Small Press industry. Readers have long been divided, purchasing by genre and coming to believe that their milieu, their tribe is all there really is for them. It’s a narrow way to exist but there is a comfort to having boundaries clearly defined; to watching the flames dance at your own fire in denial of the world beyond its halo. Small Press imprint Unsung Stories still warm themselves at the hearth of SF, Fantasy & Horror but they have made the decision to turn around; looking out towards other fires and other tribes to help foster new visions and bring us voices from the darkness beyond genre. I shan’t reveal The Beauty in all its wonder and creeping horror because that is best discovered for yourselves, but let me give you a glimpse…
‘There are signs, I don’t care what William says. 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. Timing is everything.’
The Beauty is the kind of story I never expected to read again: a quietly apocalyptic fable that stabs through cynicism to the very heart of human truth. It is intensely personal yet its meanings can be applied to many walks of life. Its plot would be a stone-cold-classic piece of Wyndham, but Aliya Whiteley’s execution has a poetry all of its own. It’s a love-letter to the oral tradition, a hymn to her, an elegy and a celebration all at once. Here’s the set-up in brief: It is five minutes into the future and half the world has died. A disease has struck down every mother, every daughter, every sister. All that remain are the men-folk, their memories, and a short crawl to extinction. Nate is the story-teller in a small, hidden community. His job is to remember the past and to craft stories from it to help his people come to terms with the present. It is a good job, but little more than a salve. The day he discovers The Beauty, he rediscovers hope. It would change them in profound ways, but it seems humanity might just rise again if it can dare to grow beyond itself.
I want to be very careful not to give too much away, here. Some elements are best left to unfurl on their own, to affect the audience with the same level of wonder, fascination and unease with which they affect the characters, so please excuse my tip-toeing around the plot. There are aspects with which you will be very familiar – the sensitive narrator, the constant struggle between what is practical and what is ‘right’, the use of group dynamics to create drama – and then there are other elements of the story (in terms of plot and provocation) which are so left-field as to leave your brain fizzing for days afterwards. In some ways Nate is little more than a spokesperson for the author – we never really get much of an impression of what he looks like, and he seems awfully young to speak with such wisdom and clarity – but there are enough character beats (decisions made, justifications sought, moments of self-realisation) to carry you through and make you care about him. A small cast of other characters are variously foregrounded and fall by the wayside, and they are all vital in some small way, but make no mistake, this is Nate’s story. The first-person narration allows for a deeper understanding of his intentions, but it also skews the reader’s perspective of events.
In fact they way we see Nate rearranging his narratives to project a deeper truth can’t help but leave you questioning and thinking about everything, and this is perhaps the author’s greatest triumph. With The Beauty, she has managed to write a novella that is simple enough in concept and language to be read by a teenager, yet fertile enough in theme and applicability to be mined by the teaching establishment for generations to come, if they are lucky enough to discover it. I should perhaps mention that there are several scenes of a sexual nature that are consensual and [trigger warning] others which are analogous to rape, domestic abuse and murder. None of these scenes are particularly graphic, and they did not feel gratuitous to me in context. The obscure imagery of the front cover calls out more to the Literary tribe than our own Geek community, but please don’t let that (or the comparatively expensive price tag) put you off; this is a truly great piece of speculative fiction. Order it in to your local library. Shove it under your English Literature teacher’s nose. Buy it for someone as a Christmas present or put it on your own list. As far as I’m concerned the more people who discover The Beauty, the better our world will be.
GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak
GS Rating: 5/5