The Beauty, a 2014 novella by Aliya Whitely, takes place in a near-future in which a fungal disease killed off all women a few years prior. The characters are an isolated, self-sufficient enclave of men, and the nearby cemetery in which their wives, mothers, and daughters rest is being overtaken by this same fungus; the plot begins when a few, against their better judgment, decide to investigate, and the resultant change that comes to their world shatters the group’s cohesion.
It opens from the point of view of Nathan, this enclave’s oral historian. We know that he — as well as the group of men he’s storytelling for — is an unreliable narrator from the beginning:
I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, and Val, and other dead women… I can remember this is not how they were; I knew them, I knew them! Only six years have passed and yet I mythologize them as if it is six thousand. I am not culpable. Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown.
And not only are the protagonist and antagonist both self-conscious of the unreliability of narrative, but they are aware of its uses and its power without ever having complete control of it. I never became emotionally invested in any of the characters or their fates, but I don’t think the reader is supposed to; the amount of body horror in this book would make such too difficult, and I think it would obscure the point. The reason to read this book — besides the prose, which often captures the feel of epic poetry without being too heavy-handed — is to watch the real-time formulation of a mythology in which the creator and the audience are organic parts of each other’s worlds. It’s a creation that’s often conscious on the part of these characters, Nathan as well as his listeners, most visibly in their power struggle over whether to define the story’s endpoint in the past or in the future.
I’m not sure how I feel about this book — I can’t exactly say I love it, or even that I necessarily like it. I finished it with more questions than answers, which is what the most thought-provoking speculative fiction is supposed to do, no? (There’s a lot to unpack about gender roles that I can’t go into without spoiling the shit out of the story, and I’m not sure I could take a definitive stance; I spent the first half of the book alarmed at its apparent cisheteronormativity, and the second half wondering if it wasn’t a subversion of cisheteronormativity.) This book seemed to ask, What are the responsibilities of the storyteller? Is it the teller who shapes the story, or the story that shapes the teller?
And to that, I’m not sure if any answers can be had.