The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World by Aliya Whiteley

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Review by Liz Dexter

Aliya Whiteley writes about the natural world in essays and fiction, grew up in North Devon and now lives in West Sussex, both rural areas replete with burgeoning nature in all its forms – including the fungi for which she cherishes a lifelong love. 

Fungi are not like us – they are entirely, magically, something else. This is a glimpse into their incredible, surprising and dark secrets, and an insight into the secret fungal world: the eruption, growth and decay overhead, inside us and under our feet.

In this little book, poetic and slightly offbeat, and presented with a novelist’s way with words, we go wandering down byways and thought processes, full of emotion and experience as well as information.

Whiteley first experienced mushroom-hunting with her dad, learning not to touch, and seems to have done foraging in Germany, too, at some point in her younger days. She examines the whole world of fungi, skipping in one chapter across all seven continents, including Antarctica, to introduce us to forms of fungi everywhere. In three sections, Erupt, Spread and Decay, short chapters look at different themes, whether that’s the nature of fungi as lying between animals and plants, the people who forage and foray for them, or fungi in popular culture and, indeed, inside us.

The author addresses the thing that gives me the slight horrors about fungi – that invisible net of filaments which joins them all together underground, forming symbiotic relationships with the roots of trees where they draw nutrients and bring nutrients, information and healing to the trees. I found it refreshing to read that the author finds this a bit weird, as well. After learning about the taxonomy, how they grow and spread, what mushrooms are and about various kinds of them, Decay dips into darker popular culture, fungi in novels and films, mostly horror, and the trend for mushroom burials.

There were lovely, delicate illustrations at the start of each chapter; however, it wasn’t always clear if these were of the fungi or parts of them that were discussed in the chapter, and I could have done with a few clearer and labelled illustrations. There is a list of all the fungi that appear in the book at the back, along with a detailed index, a bibliography and a list of fungi-inspired fiction for further reading. The cover image is very pretty and enticing, reminiscent of other nature books I’ve read over the years.

I think this will appeal to both nature-lovers and those who appreciate the quirkier side of things; an ideal autumnal, somehow, or Christmas present. 

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Liz Dexter still isn’t convinced that network of filaments thing isn’t a bit scary but is coming to terms with it bravely. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Aliya Whiteley, The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World (Elliott & Thompson, 2022. 978-1783966042, 195 pp., ill. paperback.

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