You really need to read this novelette.
A novelette is a story with less than 20,000 words. The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018) is 17,200 words long. A novella is a written work with between 20,000 and 40,000 words, or less than 100 pages long. It is longer than a short story or novelette, which has less than 20,000 words, but not as long as an 80,000-word novel. The exact length of a novelette or novella is defined by periodical, publisher, and award guidelines. Historically, a novella was intended to educate the reader, moralize a social problem, or point out a satirical-worthy absurdity. With a novella’s less than 40,000-word length, a story can have multiple characters or concentrate on the journey of a single character. Short fiction, less than 40,000 words, works best when the story focuses on a character or characters’ emotional and personal development, and does not tackle a large-scale issue. The best novellas and novelettes have the character development of a novel with the fast pace of a short story.
The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018) by Brooke Bolander is a novelette of such power and beauty, you should be a changed person after reading it. In less than 20,000 words Bolander rips out your heart, makes your jaw hurt, punches you in the gut, and in the end sob at the horror and beauty at the end of everything.
If you are looking for a linear plot, item A -> item B -> item C ->, you will be very disappointed. Bolander moves among the multiple stories happening years, and millennia, apart, to come to the center story’s ending. The stories of our lives are not linear. What happened 20 years ago informs, and can dictate, the choice we make in the now.
This is a story of stories. The novelette starts in the far future where all that is left of humanity is the story elephants’ Many Mothers carry among themselves of why they glow in the dark. All the stories the future elephants would tell are stories you read in the novelette. One story line is how the mythic female elephant Furmother-With-The-Cracked-Tusk, who had fur like a bear, rescued and released all stories into the world. In another story line Topsy the elephant and the stubborn, dying, Radium Girl named Regan originally from coal mine country tell us of the horror of being disposable in the early 20th century, and of righteous revenge that may end a bigger wrong. In another story line Kat is the scientist who comes up with the crazy idea to make elephants glow in the dark in order to warn future entities away from buried nuclear waste. She gets the job to sell the idea to the elephant Matriarch, and live with the guilt of the consequences. All the stories intertwine so that only by knowing what happened in the past, and in the future, what is presented when you the reader encounters it, makes sense. As a reader you will be juggling multiple, multicolored balls.
Among the comments I have encountered concerning this book, and I would add my voice, is that how the males — human and elephant — torment the female characters and do what the males can to belittle, negate, and make the females disappear from the male’s world. Once females cost the men money or treasure, the females are discarded. If the men can make money and find entertainment as part of the disappearing, all the better. This story is a fable of sorts. Treat all with dignity and kindness, or it will end badly for you.
We are the stories we tell ourselves. Bolander has the future Many Mothers explain this in the very beginning of The Only Harmless Great Thing. Without the stories our ego tells ourselves, how would we, individually and collectively, know who we were? Why are you where you are? Without your resentments, who are you? Is the moon made of Furmother-With-The-Cracked-Tusk’s tusk that was blasted into the sky when the stories inside her exploded, is it a wheel of European cheese, or the home of a goddess who refuses to speak to her brother? What is the story behind you wearing blue jeans, khaki pants, or a sarong? Who would the collective we be if we told stories where we in our reality-to-come acted with kindness?
“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.” — from The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018) by Brooke Bolander
Please, visit Brooke Bolander’s website: http://brookebolander.com/
The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018) is available online in digital and paper forms. You can also request a hard copy through your local bookseller.