REVIEW: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Brooke Bolander’s work has been defined so far by a combination of relentlessly precise language and colossal emotion depth and focus. Her short fiction is seared through with images that linger after you’ve finished reading and turns of phrase that sit on the backs of your eyes like the after image of the Sun. There is nothing that she’s written that is less than brilliant.

This is the best thing she’s written to date.

Combining two separate historical atrocities, Bolander explores both the scandal of the Radium Girls, a group of female factory workers killed by radiation poisoning from the paint that they were using and the murder of Topsy the elephant by electrocution. On their own, each of these is a low point for humanity. The first a brutally uncaring piece of feral capitalism. The second the murder of an animal turned into sport.

Together, here, Bolander does something extraordinary; makes them the basis for hope. Hard fought, incomplete, bloodied hope. But hope nonetheless.

The idea is simple and elegant and extraordinary. Elephants, with what’s believed to be a measure of sentience, take over from the Radium Girls. As one of the Girls, her body falling apart, teaches her replacement the two women bond. They’re different species, different minds, but they’ve both been used up, both been exploited. And they’re both murderously, savagely angry.

Bolander cuts between their narrative, a second decades into the future and the oral history of the elephants to create a story that feels expansive even in such a short page count. You get everything you need to know about the modern day version of this world, the elephants and the incidents that led to the present day plot. You also get a glimpse into a world one quarter turn away from our own. It’s a novella that’s constantly light on it’s feet; never slowing down and never stopping even as the biological frames of it’s leads break down. They’re powered by righteous anger. The novella is powered by them and the world it depicts is powered by that anger as much as they are. Not to mention a jet black streak of humour and endless, bruised compassion.

This is an astonishing debut in this format from an astonishing writer. It seethes with rage and love and knowledge. It demands to be read. Listen to it.

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