Full disclosure: this novella was an advance reader copy obtained through Netgalley. I make zero proceeds from this review.
We all know how much I like science fiction, especially post-apocalyptic science fiction. The Beauty, a slim novella by Aliya Whitely, covers this territory with unexpected elegance of prose. It’s also bizarre as…a four-legged man on a unicycle.
The publisher’s description starts:
Somewhere away from the cities and towns, a group of men and boys gather around the fire each night to listen to their stories in the Valley of the Rocks. For when the women are all gone the rest of your life is all there is for everyone. The men are waiting to pass into the night…”
Pretty standard post-apocalyptic business, except that when I began to actually read the book, the almost poetic fluidity of description was very surprising in juxtaposition with all this end-of-the-world stuff. Books like The Road, 1984, etc, often take a minimalist angle and stick to clean, spare writing. It kind of goes with the territory. But The Beauty eschewed this for the chance to say things like, “Language is changing like the earth, like the sea. We live in lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown.”
For the first part of the book I was completely onboard with this. It was a refreshing, interesting way to tell the tale of a dying society and Whitely is clearly a gifted writer.
And then the plot just got…crazy. I don’t want to give away any spoilers here, so I’ll just say that things went really odd in that symbolic kind of way where you keep waiting for all the insanity to be explained by clever allegory. Like Animal Farm. Pigs clearly can’t turn into people, but that’s okay because it was all one big batch of steaming SYMBOLISM. Orwell wasn’t just turning pigs into people because he ate too much cheese before bed and had a bad dream. (Maybe he was. Cheese is delicious.)
But the point here is that Orwell’s symbolism was clear. Probably too clear, a little too in-your-face. But the alternative is what is found in The Beauty: very nice writing, an interesting storyline, and then just so much weirdness that does not have any clear symbolic meaning. It just seems to be crazy for crazy’s sake. I’m sure the author had great intent for her plot to mean these certain things…but unless I’m completely thick, I thought it went muddled and loony at the end and it seemed that everything got bogged down in an attempt to keep the story going.
That was my only major complaint, though. The quality of the writing was sound, the story was interesting – weirdness usually is – and it was a refreshingly different approach to the genre. And with its short length, it makes a great beach read. Whitely is primarily a short story author, with sixty-seven published stories under her belt, and it shows in this book. She’s very good at packing a lot into a short space – if there’s one thing I could say about this novella, it’s that it is not boring.
3.5/5 pints – I’d recommend you read it if you enjoy science fiction or fantasy, and are looking for something easy to read and well-written. Be aware that you may not find all the answers you seek within its meager pages, but it’s definitely worth a go.
The Beauty comes out on August 4, 2014 through Unsung Stories, an imprint of Red Squirrel Publishing. It’s available in paperback in the UK and in digital formats elsewhere in the world. And it has some pretty stellar cover art.