Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander is a novella released by and is the first longer thing of the author's that I've read. (She also wrote the Hugo shortlisted story "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", which I reviewed here.) Based on this excellent novella, I certainly intend to read more of the author's work in the future.

In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.

From the cover and the kind of vague blurb, I didn't know what to expect from this book. What I got was an intricately woven set of stories about radium girls, radioactive elephants and elephant folk tales. This novella is set in an alternate timeline where, even a century ago, elephants have been found to be sentient and humans are able to communicate with them via sign language. But they are still exploited and oppressed — by circuses and by the radium watch factories.

The main story here is of the elephant Topsy and the dying radium girl Regan, who has stayed on at the factory to teach the elephants how to paint the dials. Both of them are already doomed. Their story is framed by elephant folk tales and informs a future (present) debate about using glow in the dark elephants as markers for nuclear waste sites. I admit it was that last element that first really grabbed me but in the end all the elements of the book came together nicely. If anything, the conclusion of the future storyline was the least satisfyingly conclusive, while the others had clearer endings.

Anyway, if you don't hate elephants or women, I highly recommend this book. You don't have to come into it knowing anything about the radium girls or the history of elephants in the US (I certainly knew nothing of the latter, and only learned that there was a real elephant named Topsy — who in real life never worked in a radium factory, shockingly — in a blog post by the author after I'd read the book). I will be recommending it to all and sundry at the slightest provocation.

5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2018,
Series: No
Format read: ePub eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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