I don’t want to tell you about this book. No, seriously, if I could get away with saying, “Listen guys, this is a great book. Buy it. Read it. You’ll love it,” I would. Of course it’s not really a great book, not like War and Peace, it’s not that kind of great book. War and Peace will be around in a hundred years. I’m not so sure about Little Hands Clapping but the good news is that it’s here and now and I won’t be around in a hundred years’ time so I can make any predictions I like and who’s going to rap me across the knuckles for getting it wrong? Little Hands Clapping is a great book in that that’s what you want to say when you’ve finished it. At least I did. And so I will: “This was a great book.” It’s also 1160 pages shorter than War and Peace which I consider a definite plus. It is not a book that everyone will like. No, most certainly not. Those of a delicate constitution might want to steer clear of it, people, for example, who don’t like their novels to contain the word “penis” even if said penis is the most important thing in the book, indeed the book would not be the book it turns out to be without this particular penis. Did I mention it was a larger-than-average penis? No? Well, it is and if you’ve already heard the word “penis” more times that you care to in any single review I can assure you that no more mention will be made of it.
Nope, can’t do it. Tell you what, from here on in I’ll use the popular Scottish euphemism “willie” whenever I need to reference penii. (Yes, that’s a real word.)
I should perhaps mention that the owner of that larger-than-average willie, a black man (yes, his colour is relevant), is not exactly a major player in the book. I don’t even think he is ever named but he is a key figure and not simply as the owner of the willie but because one of his buttocks (not sure which one) is the third clue, the one that finally puts the nails in the coffin so to speak. The observant amongst you may have noticed that I skipped over the second clue. There is a reason for this. It's because I am a sensitive soul and although I don't mind talking about willies there is something about the expression “scrotum sac” that makes me uncomfortable and besides I think we have spent quite enough time considering this man’s loins, don’t you?
The three exhibits – I suppose that is as good a word as any – don’t actually make their entrances until well into the novel. By that time those who didn’t realise they were of as delicate a constitution as it turns out they are will have given up; Rhodes builds up to these particular revelations, but be warned, when early on we hear about the doctor lifting some photos from his car, you may find you don’t want to know what kind of photographs these are. I’m just telling you.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I could but unlike any other novel I can think of our author does spend a lot of his time in the future tense talking about what’s going to happen so it’s not so easy to stick with the present. And when he’s not alluding to things that will transpire later on he’s providing helpful flashbacks so we know how these people get themselves into such a pretty pickle. But I’ll try.
There are three main players in the book: Herr Schmidt (usually referred to simply as “the old man”), Doctor Fröhlicher, a widower who lives alone and his dog, Hans (Hans Mark II if we’re going to be pedantic since the first Hans is now happily burying bones in the Elysian Fields). I did say three main players – I’m including Hans here for a reason. He may be a bit player and have only a few less lines than the old man but his role in these proceedings is critical.
I should perhaps reassure you by saying that although a willie proves to be the most important clue this is not a book about willies. Willies do get more of a mention that in War and Peace I have to say. Apart from the aforementioned black willie, we only get to see one other willie, the good doctor’s, windmilling as he runs through the streets in his pyjama top; two other willies do get a mention, Hulda, the cleaner’s stepfather’s and Franz Klopstock’s although neither take up much room on the page. So I suppose the book does have a higher-than-average willie-to-page content than your average comic novel. A radical penectomy is also not your typical comic novel fare but if that kind of thing upsets you be assured you’ll have quit the book long before you get there.
And, yes, this is a funny book, if more than a little grotesque. Very funny though. And probably more grotesque than I’ve let on so far but if you don’t mind your humour being invaded by the occasional willie . . . or other body part, then you’ll be fine.
Unless arachnivorism bothers you. Yes, one or two spiders are eaten throughout the course of the book. As well as a lot of cheese, crackers and cake although not at the same time as the spiders; they’re more of a late night snack for the old man. The doctor’s diet is also peculiar in its own way but what else would you expect from characters like this? Nothing conventional.
The doctor is a General Practitioner. It’s how he comes to meet the old man although the old man is not his patient. No. The old man works as the curator of an odd little museum devoted to suicide. The museum has been set up by Pavarotti’s wife as a source of encouragement for those contemplating ending their lives. He is not the Pavarotti, although, following some retooling his wife has managed to get him to look like the Pavarotti even though it turns out in the end he doesn’t see the resemblance himself and was oblivious to the fact that that this was his wife’s reason for asking him to grow a beard and for overfeeding him in the first place. The museum is not a popular tourist attraction. It is so unpopular that the old man feels the need to doctor (i.e. triple) the number of visitors he reports to his boss during their weekly meetings sometime during which he always ends up being presented with a large chocolate cake. Considering all he eats during the rest of the week are crackers and cheese (and the occasional spider) the cake is his main focus during these sessions, that and ensuring he scuppers any plan Pavarotti’s wife might have to improve the place which might cause him to have to do any more work than he absolutely must. As it is he does as little as humanly possible, indeed that was the attraction of the job in the first place and, although his religious affiliations are never mentioned, his whole goal in life appears to reach a state of Zen-like blank-mindedness. One will be hard-pushed to find a more boring character in all of literature. He reads foreign language dictionaries at night, not to improve his language skills (which, coincidentally are extraordinary, especially his ability to pinpoint local accents) but to put himself to sleep. What is more amazing is how Rhodes makes him so interesting. I suppose it’s like watching one of those guards at Buckingham Palace to see if he blinks or flinches or something. Boring can be captivating too.
The museum is not a success. I’ve already said that. There is no admission fee so one cannot measure success financially but, bearing its primary reason for being brought into being is to dissuade people from taking their own lives, in that regard alone it actually turns out to be a dismal failure. People begin going out of their way to end their lives there by a variety of means some messier than others. It is when an attempted suicide occurs – in Room Six, Statistics – that Doctor Fröhlicher and the old man become first acquainted:
‘For the sake of the nerves of the proprietress,’ [the doctor] said, ‘I think it would be best if you were always to call me in the first instance, even if the prospective patient appears to be in an advanced state of . . . no longer being alive. There will be no need for an ambulance, or any of that silliness. We are both gentlemen of the world, so let us keep such instances between ourselves.’ He looked hard at the old man, and had a feeling that they understood one another. He smiled, and said, ‘Until the grave.’
The old man nodded. He had no interest in telling anybody about what had happened. He just wanted to clear up the mess in Room Six, and forget the incident had ever occurred.
The old man could see that the doctor was acting unconventionally, but he had no cause for concern. All that mattered to him was that his own hands were clean, and that he had fulfilled his duty by contacting a medical professional. If that medical professional then chose to bundle the body into the back of his car and drive away at high speed it was hardly his concern. He was not going to tell a doctor how to do his job.
This arrangement continues for some time with no questions being asked. As it happens when the truth becomes known to him it turns out that the old man was completely wrong when he learns what has been actually happening to the corpses. But that’s enough of that for just now.
Just now I need to introduce you to the sub-plot, the childhood sweethearts, Madalena and Mauro, from Portugal and the young baker, a Piscean by birth due to his father’s inability to heed his great-great-grandmother’s caveat not to have sex while on honeymoon. Now if she’d explained herself at the time he might have realised what the potential consequences down the line might have been and done nothing but she did not and so he did what came naturally. Only when the pregnancy became know did the old woman tell them why it was such a bad idea. Like all great-great-grandmothers she picks her moment and while the families are in the midst of an impromptu celebration she stands up and bangs her stick three times on the floor:
The room fell silent.
‘This celebration is all very well,’ she said, ‘and of course we shall welcome the newcomer with all our hearts, but remember this: the child was conceived between the crisp cotton sheets of the honeymoon hotel. ... This means,’ she said, looking from blank face to blank face, ‘that the baby is due to enter the world in early March.’ A chill emanated from the aunts and uncles. While some of the women had already estimated the baby’s due date, its significance had not struck them until this moment. The younger members of the party waited for the old woman to continue. ‘If the child arrives when it is due, it will be born under the sign of the fish.’ She drew the sign in the air with the end of her stick. ‘This town has not seen a Piscean child for many decades, and the last one . . . Well, maybe it’s time you young people were told about him.’
The older relatives implored her not to tell, ‘Please,’ they said. ‘Not now. Not tonight.’
But it was too late to stop her, and she told the story of the Piscean boy. He had fulfilled everything that might be expected of somebody with such a birth date: he daydreamed, he wrote poems, he wandered through the streets and fields as though in a daze, he shed tears at the sight of animals in distress, he played the accordion and fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl who could never return his feelings.
The only hope might be if the child was born a girl but that never happened and over the following years the parents start ticking off the items from the old woman’s list: the glazed look arrives, they hear the sound of scribbling from behind his bedroom door and finally, when he is asked what he wants for his birthday, one year he requests a euphonium. All that remained was for him to fall in love.
Which brings us to Madalena, the most beautiful girl in the town. If there was one girl in the town he was destined to fall head over heels for it was going to be the least attainable. Her lack of attainability has nothing to do with the fact that the young baker is not a nice person. He is a very nice person and Madalena acknowledges this to his face but her heart has been bound up with that of Mauro, who happens to be the most handsome young man in the town, since they were children and she has never, not for an instant, considered the possibility that there might be any other man for her. Not that Mauro’s just a pretty face. He’s not and neither is Madalena, just before you have them pegged as this superficial couple who can’t see beyond each other’s looks. No, she has dreams of becoming a pharmacist and Mauro is planning to qualify as an optician. Indeed one day the two of them get the bus and leave for the city to begin their studies and from that point on their lives will never be the same but not in the way that either of them (or we readers) might have expected. The young baker stays at home, takes over the bakery (despite the weaknesses in his nature he turns out to be an excellent baker) and plays his euphonium mournfully every evening as the sun dips behind the mountain.
How this Portuguese threesome become involved with the Germanic threesome is hard to envisage. But they do, tangentially it has to be said, but also critically. This kind of storyline has been done before – Richard Brautigan’s Willard and his Bowling Trophies jumps to mind – where you have two very different tales on the go and you know that somehow they’re going to become intertwined but you have no idea how exactly even though, when it happens, it seems both obvious and inevitable.
But how to describe the flavour of this book? When you look at the illustration on the cover it’s impossible not to think of the work of the work of Edward Gorey. It also has the flavour of some of Tim Burton’s animated work and Tom Baker’s The Boy Who Kicked Pigs. The List describes the book as
...a strange, surreal gothic fable laced with humour and pathos, a novel with a heart-warming and all-too-rare humanity at the core of its inventive and more than a little strange plot.
I can’t disagree with that but it’s the word ‘gothic’ one has to be careful of. It’s not gothic like Emily the Strange or The Addams Family or the Goths that hang around outside the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art but it is gothic in the grand Germanic tradition of the word. To quote Wikipedia:
Gothic fiction (sometimes referred to as Gothic horror) is a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. As a genre, it is generally believed to have been invented by the English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto.
The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, more of a psychological horror than a real horror, an extension of Romantic literacy pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole's novel. Melodrama and parody (including self-parody) were other long-standing features of the Gothic initiated by Walpole.
That’s an interesting turn of phrase don’t you think, “a pleasing sort of terror”, and that’s a good way to think about the more unpleasant elements of this book. I wouldn’t call Little Hands Clapping melodramatic but I can say that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Where it works best for me, where it earns the appellation “great” is in its use of language. Rhodes doesn’t simply describe things, he enjoys describing things:
At eight fifty-eight [the old man] stood and made his way downstairs. On the stroke of nine he opened the front door to see the large smiling face of a powerfully built young woman, her light brown hair sitting in a chaotic pile on top of her head. Her name was Hulda. It was the correct name for her. Every once in a while a Hulda will come along who is able to pass through life discreetly, but most of them are so thoroughly Hulda that there is no other name they could possibly have been given. Shopkeepers, ticket inspectors and tourists in search of directions will greet them with the words, Good morning, Hulda, or Excuse me, Hulda. This happens so naturally, and with such frequency, that neither party stops to think it strange.
Hulda is the cleaning lady, one of a variety of delightfully odd men and women that flit around the book’s main characters generally annoying them by being far too cheerful. Hulda is the bane of the old man’s life; the doctor has to contend with patients who, on meeting him out of the surgery, have no clue how to carry on a conversation with him without first referring to the weather and how shiny his dog’s coat is.
It is not a perfect book. The climax comes a little quickly at least it felt like that. It might have simply been me turning the pages at a ferocious rate to see what was going to happen next. I’m not sure. Once we’re there and we find out the fate of the doctor and the old man there only remains the dénouement and that wasn’t hard to guess but thankfully Rhodes doesn’t drag it out. The final i‘s are dotted and t’s crossed and everything ends neatly as all the best fairy stories do.
Before sitting down to write this I described the book to my wife, in more details than you would want me to here, and she said, “That sounds like a fairy story,” and, of course, she’s right. It definitely has that flavour even if it’s not one you’d necessarily read to your six-year-old at night, not if you want them to have a good night’s sleep. Carrie also suggested Lemony Snicket's, A Series of Unfortunate Events as a similar work and, yes, I can see where she’s coming from. My daughter, who hasn’t been six years old for some time, will love it.
Rhodes despite having a Welsh surname and living in Edinburgh is actually an English writer. One of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, his novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
Born in 1972 he has worked in various jobs including stockroom assistant in a bookshop and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. He says that 1980's band The Smiths are "still the soundtrack to my life – I can't work out if they saved it or ruined it".
You can read my review of his novel Gold here.
Little Hands Clapping is available in hardback from Canongate Books for a nice round ten quid but you can find in elsewhere quite a bit cheaper. It would make a great present and I suspect my daughter may well end up with my copy.