Author Aliya Whiteley has been fascinated by fungi since her childhood spent in North Devon; indeed, science-fiction-like mushrooms bloom in much of her fiction.  She is, she writes, ‘inspired by their surreal and alien beauty’.  The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World is Whiteley’s non-fiction foray into the world of fungi great and small.

Whiteley provides ‘a glimpse into their incredible, surprising and dark world: a lyrical romp through the eruption, growth and decay under our feet, overhead, and even inside us.’  They can, writes Whiteley, ‘invade bodies and thoughts; they can live between our toes or between our floorboards; they are unwelcome intruders or vastly expensive treats; they are symbols of both death and eternal life.’

Fungi have been found on every continent on earth, and can flourish under all conditions, from deserts to tundra; they have even been found on the Space Station.  Despite their familiar presence, however, we know relatively little about these ‘secretive lifeforms’.

Many fungi exist without a common name, and even without common characteristics.  In her introduction, Whiteley reflects that even as a child, she recognised how different fungi could be, from ‘flat and smooth’ to ‘creased in texture, like folded paper’.  She muses: ‘They could look bold, defiant, in the way their caps reared up from their stems, or they could be a mess of rotting material from which insects crawled and snails oozed.’  They can also be vastly different in the ways in which they present to humans, particularly with regard to their smell: ‘A flick through my identification guide,’ writes Whiteley, ‘reveals a host of descriptions that have passed me by: mushrooms that smell of shrimp, of sawdust, of radish, plums or parsley, of iodine, of rhubarb, of ammonia or crabmeat.  They can smell unpleasant, sickly sweet, rank or rancid.’

The Secret Life of Fungi has been split into three separate sections – ‘Erupt’, ‘Spread’, and ‘Decay’ – which are, in turn, made up of short chapters.  In these, Whiteley writes about many elements of fungi: their taxonomy and folk names, the uses of fungi in medicine, their reproduction processes, truffle hunting, fungal infections, and making sourdough bread, just for starters…  She pays attention to their evolution, too.  Whiteley’s prose style veers between the informal and the poetic, weaving in scientific evidence and historical discoveries along the way.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, in my opinion, were the mentions which Whiteley made of looking toward the future; she believes that fungi could ‘hold the key to a variety of scientific advances, from agriculture to environmental innovations.’  However, I do not feel as though this really went far enough; it was merely touched upon on a couple of occasions.

The Secret Life of Fungi is an anecdotal book, comprised of short chapters which only relate to one another in that they all mention some guise of fungi.  Although Whiteley does cover a lot of ground here – from their cellular makeup, to the fascinating ways in which fungi interact with their surroundings, and their symbiotic relationships with other organisms – it is not an in-depth exploration by any means.  However, it does provide so much of interest, and is certainly an accessible handbook of sorts.  The handy ‘Reading List of Fungal Fiction’ allows you to go further in this field – pardon the pun – if you wish to.

In many ways, The Secret Life of Fungi is quite fascinating, but I do not feel as though it was overly engaging.  Despite the different sections, the majority of the chapters have no flow from one to the next.  Whilst I liked the general approach of the book, I did feel as though the ordering of sections was a little too random, and a more circular structure would have been far more effective.

I shall end this review on one of the main takeaways from the book, something which I feel can be easily overlooked: ‘Fungi, just like the rest of the Earth’s organisms, have to find a way to live in the world humans are creating, even to the detriment of others.’

Review by Kirsty Hewitt

Elliott & Thompson Limited; 1st Edition (22 Oct. 2020) 978-1783965304