My rating: 5/5 stars
NOTE: This book was sent to me upon request from netgalley.com. The novel will be available to purchase May 1st 2017.
“Ordinary women in 1920s America.
All they wanted was the chance to shine.
Be careful what you wish for.”
The Radium Girls is one of those rare works of non-fiction that reads effortlessly, because besides the artful prose and the meticulously rendered characters, the story itself beggars belief. How could a generation of hopeful, bright-eyed young women be mistreated in such a callous way by their work place? How could a well-known company encourage a young female workforce to ‘lick’ and ‘point’ the ends of paintbrushes that had been dipped into radioactive paint? I certainly didn’t believe this was true – until I researched and realised that yes, life can be stranger than fiction.
The book traces the long-forgotten, landmark case of various female factory workers who had contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials. The paint itself (mixed with radium – at the time, deemed a ‘wonder-drug’) seeped into the clothes, hair and very bones of the unsuspecting workers, until they began showing terrifying symptoms of anemia and necrosis.
Kate Moore’s novel is a tribute and an elegy to the working class girls who suffered horrendous agony at the hands of unapologetic capitalist corporations until they found a lawyer who was willing to fight back on their behalf. Moore spends time lovingly immersing us into the naive world of the girls, as they step into the world of work and become painters and artists. The glow of ‘undark’ gives their lives a Hollywood glamour they could only dream of. However the otherworldly light that clung to them like fairy dust is far from magical – unbeknownst to them it was the evil glow of death.
With every rise, there must be a fall. So Moore takes us on the tragic downturn of the girls’ lives, as she begins to paint with painful accuracy the onset of a series of agonising deaths that the mind finds hard to comprehend.
The history of these girls and their suffering resonated deeply with me. It is at once a heartbreaking tragedy and a true life ‘underdog’ story. At parts it evoked memories of Erin Brokovich, and there were moments when I saw it dove-tailing with Per Olov Enquist’s excellent novel ‘The Story of Blanche and Marie’; another incredibly vivid and saddening tale of how radium destroyed of the lives of Marie Curie and Blanche Wittman, her assistant.
When it comes to radium, one cannot help but be fascinated and horrified of it at the same time; especially the relationship has had with women. The Radium Girls is a book that will stay with me for a long time.