‘Three not very helpful comparisons’ – Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes

Let’s start by making three not very helpful comparisons. First. Do you remember The Beautiful South, the band Paul Heaton established when he flew the Housemartin coop? They were famous round these parts for fashioning elegant pop music in which the lyrics were all barbed and vinegary (such that, it was possible to find your gran or someone wholly respectable singing something quite acidic). That was their thing. Elegant pop music, barbed lyrics. Dan Rhodes is a little bit like that. It’s not an altogether helpful comparison as in the great scheme of things, The Beautiful South were only good for about half an hour and Dan Rhodes has been good for – well, ages now… But it is helpful in regards to Little Hands Clapping, which is a devilishly barbed tale wrapped up in deceptively simple and self-effacing prose. The second not very helpful comparison? Mick Jackson, author of the Booker-nominated The Underground Man and, more recently, a pair of books entitled Ten Sorry Tales and Bears of England. These last two books featured illustrations by David Roberts. Somehow or other, the words and the illustrations marched together, hand in hand, in a most effective way. David Roberts has done an illustration for the cover of Little Hands Clapping (of a sort of bullet headed man with flushed cheeks, a spider crawling across his face). Now, it may not be David Roberts’ fault (the overall cover design was done by someone called gray318), but Little Hands Clapping now looks like a YA title. My eight year old daughter saw me reading the book and asked if she could read it next. I was about two thirds of the way through the book at this point and had encountered cannibals, necrophiliacs and a dog coughing up a cock and balls so I said no. The pairing of Mick Jackson and David Roberts works, in other words; the pairing of Dan Rhodes and David Roberts does not. The third not very helpful comparison? M Night Shyamalam. Before he became known as ‘the film director most likely to make the worst film you’ve ever seen’ he was known as ‘the film director most likely to include a twist of the ‘I-didn’t-see-that-coming’ variety’. Dan Rhodes is also someone who enjoys planting a punch at the end of his books (I refer you to both Timoleon Vieta Come Home & Gold as exhibits 1 and 2). It isn’t helpful to read Little Hands Clapping (as I did) in expectation of that climactic bombshell. Rhodes takes time here to foreshadow what happens at the end. What he foreshadows comes to pass. Whilst this is fine, if you’re spending your time watching the magician’s hands to see where the cards are going to end up, you won’t get as much pleasure from the book as you would otherwise.

Okay so. With all that in mind. Little Hands Clapping concerns, in part, a musuem in Germany devoted to suicide. Established by a woman known as Pavarotti’s Wife (because her young husband looks like Pavarotti) to try and keep wayward souls on the straight and narrow, the museum also serves another unfortunate purpose: offering wayward souls a last resting place. Not that anyone beyond the creepy Old Man who runs the museum (the bullet headed man on the cover) and local Doctor Ernst Fröhlicher (the namesake of a Swiss watercolourist and architect who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century) knows anything about the suicides – because the Old Man and Fröhlicher hush everything up (the Old Man out of a desire just to keep things fuss free and the good doctor because… well. The good doctor, it turns out, is something of a cannibal. He takes the suicides home, bungs them in his chest freezer and gradually works his way through the meat, he and his dog Hans trading off on man steaks and what-have-you.) But this is only one strand of the book. For the other, we have to retreat twenty-one years and high tail it over to ‘a small town in the Portuguese hills, some way to the north of the Rio Douro’. Within a few weeks of one another, a boy and a girl are born, Mauro and Madalena, a pair of children who, as they grow, became ‘almost as unreal as images on a billboard’, the most beautiful people for miles around – but ‘Just as the people of Rome continue to hang pictures on the walls of their apartments in spite of the proximity of the Sistine Chapel, so were Mauro and Madalena’s neighbours able to look at their husbands, wives and sweethearts with as much fondness as if these two had not been breathing the same clean mountain air.’ However, ‘Not everybody in town was able to shake off their yearning so easily though, and one pair of eyes was the saddest of all.’ The baker’s son is infatuated with Madalena, even though he knows it will never be. He bakes the finest bread and the sweetest pastries (gifting Madalena and Mauro a bag of jam doughnuts one day after making his declaration to her) and plays heartbreaking tunes on his euphonium and he watches as Mauro and Madalena plight their troth for one another, leaving for the big city with dreams of becoming, respectively, an optician and a pharmacist on opposite sides of the same street. Small town plans, however, are derailed when Mauro is invited to model and, before you can say oh-oh, I see where this is going – Mauro has made a name for himself as the most beautiful man on the planet and Madalena is on a fast track to that German museum…

As with Timoleon Vieta Come Home, there are narrative side-steps amidst what reads at times like a mash-up of film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (if he filmed un homage to Krzysztof Kieślowski) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who Rhodes apparently started reading after someone compared him to Marquez) – with one terrific chapter, for example, devoted to a young girl called Elodie (the kind of sad/beautiful girl you see and don’t speak to on trains) who ends up cruelly deflowered by the good doctor. Whatever nits there are to pick (the aforementioned cover, the slightly heavy-handed foreshadowing of what eventually befalls the doctor and the Old Man) are more than offset by the pleasures to be had (Rhodes great genius seems to lie in creating terrific peripheral characters who appear briefly warranting a novel of their own and then disappear having fulfilled their narrative function, although there is equal joy to be gleaned from the relish Rhodes takes in seeing what he can get away with – see the dog coughing up a black gentleman’s cock and balls before an aghast patient of the doctor’s). For me, Little Hands Clapping isn’t quite as good as Gold but it is very good. If you’re a fan, you’ll get a kick out of this.

Any Cop?: Just don’t judge a book by its cover…

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