The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. It’s alternate history, maybe it’s even set in an alternate universe, as here elephants can talk with human through sign language.
Its premise is brilliant in its simplicity and weirdness: what if we combined the tragic story of Topsy the elephant with the tragic story of the Radium Girls? It’s a great idea, really – in its very few pages, this novella manages to talk about both the exploitation of women and animal abuse in US history.
It’s weird and sad and angry, but can a story with this premise not be?
When I started it, I had no idea of what was going on, but after a few pages I understood that it follows four different PoVs, and at least three different timelines.
• Kat is a scientist who is trying to find a way to hide nuclear waste so that no one will want to come near it. Her idea involves glowing elephants, who are, after the “Topsy incident”, tied to nuclear radiation in the collective imagination.
• Regan is a dying Radium Girl who is teaching elephants how to work with the poisonous paint. She knows she’s teaching them how to die, but she needs money – or, maybe, there’s something she can do to change things before she dies.
• Topsy is the elephant at the center of the tragedy that will change everything.
• Furmother is a character in the elephants’ folktales. What they value the most are stories, the stories that elephants separated from their families will never get to tell.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is also really short. Too short for me to really get to know the characters, and too short to have a conclusion that didn’t feel rushed. I felt like one of the plotlines didn’t get closure.
I also didn’t love the writing – it wasn’t bad, it was… confusing, and while that made me feel the anger of the characters, it was difficult for me to get into the story.
My rating: ★★★¾