Review by Tess Tabak

Who knew mushrooms could be so fascinating?

In The Beauty of the Death Cap, Nikonor, the eccentric narrator, states, “I have always preferred the company of trees and mushrooms to that of my fellow humans.” That is the gist of the book. With a wry sense of humor, Nikonor takes us on a rolling journey through his life in mushrooms. He is obsessed with fungi, and has made them his life’s work. The people he meets are another story.

Author Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze gives us a Nabokovian narrator in Nikonor. The prose is gorgeous, with lines shifting back and forth between French and English that verge on poetry (“Encore que . . . suddenly I am seized with doubt!”). He slowly unveils a narrative, distracted along the way by tangents on everything from mushrooms to Charles Baudelaire’s missed calling as a nature poet, all with a surprisingly sharp sense of humor and a pretentious air. He speaks of death and murder as coldly and carelessly as if he were talking about picking a mushroom, musing things like, “I am a lone wolf by nature. I made the mistake of taking on a partner only once, and the attempt ended in an abject failure—one from which my associate did not recover.”

Ostensibly, Nikonor is laying out his life’s story and describing the path that led him to his crimes, but Death Cap is more about the journey than the destination. The work is verbally rich: there are descriptions of mycology that are equally poetic and scientific. Translator Tina Kover did an excellent job of capturing the language and humor of the book (you can read about her process in our Q&A with her). She blends French, English, and scientific terminology seamlessly: “All this time that mygalomorph spider has been lying in wait, crouched in some hole somewhere, watching for the right opportunity to strike, to annihilate me once and for all, une bonne fois pour toutes.”

At a slim 150 pages, Beauty of the Death Cap is a quick, engaging read. It would make an excellent holiday gift for fans of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, or anyone who loves language and has a dry sense of humor.


The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.