My introduction to Dan Rhodes was his previous novel, 2007’s Gold, which I enjoyed very much; enough that I needed no persuading to seek out a copy of his latest work. Little Hands Clapping is very different in subject matter, but unmistakably the work of the same author; and, as I read, I began to see deeper similarities. Perhaps more than usual, I find my thoughts about the present book coloured by those I had of the earlier; in that light, I’m a little less satisfied with Little Hands Clapping than with Gold, though the new novel is a very enjoyable read in its own right.
Synopsising Rhodes is awkward, because it doesn’t give a full picture: for one thing, if you take a bald summary of the plot, it seems that nothing much happens – but that’s not how the book reads; for another, Rhodes’s style is integral to the experience of reading him. I’m trying to think how to describe his style – words like ‘fairytale’ and ‘whimsical’ are going through my mind, but none of them seems quite right. The sense is more one of being told a story – of viewing a slightly heightened version of reality.
One of Rhodes’s common techniques is to mask something harsh and real behind that facade of tale-telling, such that you might have to stop and check back that, yes, you did understand that correctly. Take, the beginning, for example, where the author introduces his main setting, a German museum devoted to the subject of suicide. The museum’s caretaker is a grey old man who’d probably feel right at home in a Roald Dahl story; we first see at the end of the opening chapter that he’s not as straightforward as we might have assumed, when he happily munches on a spider which has crawled into his mouth. (The museum gains its own tinge of unreality from the way Rhodes unveils room after room, like a magician producing handkerchiefs from an apparently empty fist.) Whilst lying in bed in his quarters above the museum, the old man hears a noise from below; he thinks nothing of it, and, perhaps, neither do we – but we soon discover that the noise was someone hanging himself (this happens regularly, despite the museum’s having been founded with the aim of deterring people from suicide).
Other harrowing facts are revealed in a similarly deadpan way, not least that the doctor whom the caretaker surreptitiously calls out to deal with all the suicides has his own use for the dead bodies – he eats them. This will become public knowledge by novel’s end, as we learn early on.
Running in parallel are several other storylines, notably that of Mauro and Madalena, the most beautiful boy and girl in their village, who seem destined to be together always – and they are, until they leave and discover that, whilst Mauro is just as handsome in the wider world, Madalena is merely pretty. fate turns against them… With Rhodes’s style, it can be hard to get at the ‘real’ emotions; but this strand of Little Hands Clapping is affecting nonetheless, with some telling observations of love and how it can evolve.
So far, so good; why the unfavourable comparison with Gold, then? Because, as far as I can see, Little Hands Clapping doesn’t have the same subtextual richness. The individual elements of the novel are fine, but I don’t think they tie together in the way that Gold’s did, and that’s why I’m less satisfied. But I’m not dissatisfied, no way; not when Rhodes builds and maintains a momentum that drives his story on to a conclusion that seems inevitable (but is it?), yet remains compulsive reading. And the ending – like the ending of Gold – is a lovely piece of writing.
And so, with regret, I leave the imagination of Dan Rhodes behind once more. There’s no other imagination in literature quite like it – and I look forward to when the time will be right to go back there, to read another of his books.
Dan Rhodes’s website