8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing

Author: Brooke Bolander

Genre: Alternate History, SF

Publisher: Tor.com
Publication date: January 23 2018
Paperback: 96 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher

Format (e- or p-): ebook


It is impossible to look of The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander and not think about history, about memory and about time.

In the early 20th century, a group of female factory workers’ job was to paint watch dials with self-luminous paint. They had been told that the paint was harmless and that they should use their lips to point the brushes – to save money on cleaning materials and ironically, to also save time. The paint was not harmless of course, and the women contracted radiation poisoning. They are know in history as Radium Girls.

Around the same time a baby elephant named Topsy was brought to the US from Asia and tortured all her life at the many circuses and parks where she was kept. Eventually, Topsy became violent and was gruesomely and violently put to death in a semi-public spectacle.

The Only Harmless Great Thing combines the two tragedies in an alternate history retelling that chronicles not only the lives of a couple of Radium Girls and of Topsy the elephant but also of the past and the future in a story that concerns history, radioactivity and memory keeping.

This is a novella of fragments. One that seamlessly jump back in forth in the narrative – and in time. I love this facet of The Only Harmless Great Thing: a story about a tragedy concerning dials for watches that keep time, told back and forth as time passes and looking at how the time-keeping tragedy is registered and remembered for future generations. Memory is also another aspect of it and again, playing with time and memory and record-keeping and conflating it all with elephants.

The adage says “Elephants never forget” and in this alternate storyline, this idea is extrapolated to have elephants – and specially their matriarchs, their Mothers – keep history (the Stories) alive. In here, elephants communicate directly with humans and Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls share their tragedy in wholly unexpected ways.

This novella is as succinct as it is beautiful: a snippet of times and of characters who struggle with unthinkable injustice. We better make sure to remember that one of the greatest harmful things is the forgetting.

It is impossible to think of The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander and not think about justice, about and about great, impacting storytelling.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

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    January 23, 2018 at 9:57 am

    […] post Book Review: <i>The Only Harmless Great Thing</i> by Brooke Bolander appeared first on The Book […]

  • M
    January 25, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    Wow. Now on my wish list!

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    […] Today’s guest is Brooke Bolander, talking to Aliette and Fran about her awesome new novella The Only Harmless Great Thing. […]

  • Cooking the Books with Brooke Bolander – Headlines
    March 3, 2018 at 10:51 am

    […] Today’s guest is Brooke Bolander, talking to Aliette and Fran about her awesome new novella The Only Harmless Great Thing. […]

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    April 3, 2018 at 10:32 am

    This book is wonderful, and sad making, and my gosh Ms. Bolander is one lyrical writer. All the characters feel true. There is a lot of story packed into a small space, and it is all good. I look forward to more from this author so, you know, buy her books.

  • Corey Walcott
    April 3, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    The description of the premise is intriguing. Capturing 2 historical events ties the fiction to our reality. I am interested to see how the author manages this. 96 pages? I don’t think I could unfold a story so quickly. This is definitely on my list.

  • Jerry Fisher
    May 25, 2018 at 6:56 am

    This book is magnificent, and miserable making. Every one of the characters feel genuine. There is a great deal of story stuffed into a little space, and it is all great. I anticipate more from this writer along these lines, you know, get her books.

  • Sweet Home Guide
    November 21, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    This book surprised be by the unusual plot. I spent my last two weeks by readings it. Thanks a lot and waiting for books.

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