* Prices may differ from that shown
The great thing about writing for a book review site like Curious Book Fans is that sometimes you get sent a book that you'd never have chosen if you'd seen in on a shelf. Many times this can mean you get introduced to an amazing writer well outside your normal reading field. Sometimes it means you get a book that's just seriously bonkers. Little Hands Clapping is that seriously bonkers book!
~The Old Man~
In a small town in Germany the Old Man works as the guardian of a bizarre museum. He's been looking after other strange museums for many years including such tourist low-lights as the Bad Neustadt Handball Experience and the Regensburg Reformation World of Teddy Bears but his current employment is rather special. He gets to live upstairs and he spends his days trying to discourage visitors from visiting and doctoring the visitor numbers to make it look like the place is more popular than it is. After all, there's no point making too much work but equally he wouldn't want the owner to shut the place down. Periodically he has some 'special' duties to perform about which the owner of the museum knows nothing, but for which he has the support of the local Doctor.
The museum celebrates - if that can be said to be the right word - suicide in all its forms. The owner - known as Mrs Pavarotti because she's expressed her love of the famous tenor by tracking down and marrying a man who looks like Pavarotti - set up the museum in the hope that the displays of the weird and wonderful ways that the desperate seek to leave this world might inspire the lost, lonely and suicidal to cling to their lives and seek help. Sadly what she doesn't realise - and which the Old Man and the Doctor don't tell her - is that her museum has quite the opposite effect. It acts instead as inspiration to suicidal people who come and hide out behind the cabinets and displays until the museum closes when they creep out and take their lives during the night. The Old Man calls the Doctor, they bundle up the body into the boot of the Doctor's car and the Old Man clears up the mess. If Mrs Pavarotti knew what was happening she'd be very upset and would close the museum and neither the Old Man nor the Doctor would want that to happen - each for different reasons.
Twenty-something years before the Old Man, the Doctor and their suicidal visitors, three babies were born in a small Portuguese town. Two of the babies were truly beautiful and the townspeople knew that they were destined to be together. The third baby was rather less gorgeous. As the children grow older, Mauro and Madalena (the gorgeous ones) got together as all the old people prophesised they would. The third - the son of the village baker - was in love with Madalena but it was clear he wasn't in her league. With no hope of winning her love, he turned his attention to baking the best bread and playing his euphonium, filling the town with the smells of baking by day and the sounds of exquisite but sad music each evening.
For much of the book the reader can only ponder how the young Portuguese can possibly be linked to the Old Man and the German museum. Similarly we can only wonder what the Doctor does with the bodies of the desperate people who have taken their lives. We know that the Doctor is himself a tragic creature, widowed at a young age by the death of his beautiful but horrible wife and lauded by his community for his personal bravery and devotion to medical science. But how will they all fit together and what's really going on at the museum?
~A Round of Applause? Or just a ripple?~
Little Hands Clapping is unquestionably one of the weirdest books that I've read in a very long time. Normally I know within the first few chapters whether I like a book or not. With this book I've polished off all 300+ pages and I still cannot answer the questions "Did you like it?" with a simple yes or no. I honestly can't decide. I also would struggle to tell you whether it's really funny which equally ought to be obvious, but it's not. This is a very strange, disturbing and uncomfortable read. In places it's laugh out loud funny, more often it's wryly amusing and at other times it's just plain bonkers. The reader has to ask themselves what sort of sick mind came up with a plot based around the celebration of suicide, the practice of cannibalism and necrophilia and whether it's really appropriate to laugh when a dog vomits up a severed penis whilst taking a walk in the park? The politically correct part of your brain will tell you to "step away from the Dark Side" but every now and then Rhodes delivers a line so funny that you're almost ready to turn a blind eye to the weirder aspects of the book.
The interweaving of the stories of the different characters is quite cleverly done. In my mind I could clearly picture both the German and Portuguese towns, could imagine the inside of the museum (which was probably more exciting than many I've been to) and the characters are painted with conviction but without sympathy. Dan Rhodes is clearly confident in his art and with five other books already under his belt, there are no shortage of people wanting to read his books. This one won an award - the E.M.Forster Award 2010 - admittedly one of which I've not heard but it's clearly highly rated. I've really struggled on choosing a star rating for this because no matter how much I reflect on the book, I still can't decide whether I liked it, whether I recommend it, or whether I'll ever quite recover from reading about the dog and the penis or the spider-eating Old Man.
Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes
Published by Canongate Books, paperback, March 2011
Thanks to Canongate (always one of my favourite publishers) for providing a free review copy via Curious Book Fans where this review also appears