I tried to buy The Only Harmless Great Thing twice. After reading The Radium Girls it was recommended to me so I went to pre-order it, only to find I apparently had already done so, six months earlier. It was clearly a sign, so I made sure it didn’t sink to the bottom of my TBR. It’s also one of Tor’s fabulous novella length stories, which I am much enamored with.

They will see how we shine, and they will know the truth.

You may or may not be aware of Topsy the elephant and the real life Radium Girls but Brooke Bolander twists their stories together in an alternate history where elephants and humans have learned to communicate with each other via sign language. Topsy was an elephant, stolen from the wild and kept as an amusement at Luna Park on Coney Island. After killing a spectator, the real Topsy was sentenced to death, in this version of events she is sentenced to paint radium dials after the companies had to admit that the radium was dangerous.

If you don’t know who the Radium Girls were, well read my review of the book then come back here (and maybe buy that book because it’s amazing). Regan is an ex US Radium employee and is showing signs of poisoning. I think my feelings from reading about the real life women kept flooding back whenever she talked about it, so I am probably biased in my emotional reaction to this story.

Their noses were stumpy, ridiculous things and they couldn’t smell the Wrongness, even as they rubbed it across their teeth and faces. All they could see was how bright it looked, like sunlight through new leaves.

It is a bit weird and won’t be for everyone. It’s split between a sort of folk tale from the elephants’ point of view, Reagan and Topsy and a future scientist working on a way to make people remember about nuclear contamination. It plays on the idea that an elephant never forgets, with the folk tale suggesting that they pass on stories across generations, a sort of genetic memory. And because of the radium elephants, people in this alternate world associate elephants with radiation.

It is a very sudden ending, even though all the threads build up to that moment, it still felt a bit like I was missing a chapter. I’d have quite liked an epilogue in the very distant future. I’m glad I read it and would consider reading longer works from Brooke should she write them.

Goodreads | Amazon | Wordery

Book Source: Purchased