The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander: Novella Review

The novellas, which first made an appearance a few years ago, have proven to be a major force in the literary world, taking over major SFF awards, the Hugo and the Nebula among others. At first, I wasn’t completely sold in the concept of short fiction. The works of fantasy that I have completely fallen in love with involve huge tomes that expand hundreds of pages in trilogies or series. It took me a while to open up to the idea of reading a novella. And when I did, was there for me with a wide variety of novellas, some excellent and some not so, but books that kept coming frequently enough to peak my interest.

james-hammond-347179I am still a novice in the world of short fiction, but The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of those works that have inspired me to explore a whole new world of books, and for that I am grateful.

Brooke Bolander explores the tragic story of the Radium Girls, the female dial painters who, in the early 20th century, died from radiation exposure as a result of them not only handling but ingesting radium, after being instructed to use their lips to fine point the brushes in order to save time, instead of dipping the brushes in water. These women suffered from necrosis of the jaw which led to incredible pain and disfigurement. Bolander parallels the grave injustice these women endured with the abuse that elephants suffer in the hands of man. The reader knows how this alternate history account ends, but there is no hiding from its tragic hands.

No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.

The narration is split in three parts. First, we meet Kat, a scientist who has dedicated most of her research and academic life to one project. Funnily enough, it has come down to this: negotiation with an elephant representative with the aid of a translator to “make the elephant’s people glow in the dark“. You see, elephants are sentient species with self-awareness, and humans have been able to communicate with them using sign language for more than two hundred years.
Back in the early 1900’s, Regan is one of the Radium Girls. She is desperately holding on to life in order to provide for her family while visiting her best friend at the hospital where she is spending the last hours of her life. Regan watches Jodie dying while her own jaw is rotting, more of her teeth falling each time she brushes them. She is a walking dead. And Topsy knows it, too. Topsy is the elephant Regan is working with back at the factory, teaching her to perform her job so she can take over once Regan is gone. Teaching her to eat the poison that is slowly killing her.

In this mean old dead-dog world you do what you gotta do to put food on the table, even when you’re damn certain deep down in your knowing-marrow that it’s wrong and that God Almighty his own damn self will read you the riot act on Judgment Day.

Topsy’s is the third perspective of this novella, a powerful elephant, fed up of the pink little creatures that constantly abuse her for their own entertainment. Topsy has killed men before and has now ended up with Regan, the woman that stinks of death, the woman teaching her how to eat the foul-smelling poison. And all the while, Topsy’s anger buzzes in her ear, a volcano preparing to erupt.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a story of revenge, of righting wrongs and the futility of it all. Bolander will rip your heart out, disgust you, sadden you and make you feel powerful and powerless in less than 100 merciless pages. A terrible story, I loved it.

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