Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes

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Little Hands Clapping
by Dan Rhodes
Publisher: Canongate

I was maybe seven pages in when I muttered ‘Rhodes, you’re a crazy man... but I like you’. OK so I didn’t mutter, I only thought, but I felt I should have muttered. In the weird world of Rhodes’ imagination I’m sure people mutter a lot. By the end of the book though I had laughed out loud in the office lunchroom and had to explain why (it involved genitals), twice wondered if there was something wrong with me for finding that bit funny, smiled repeatedly, had my heart strings plucked and experienced considerable anxiety when I left my copy in the room where we see clients. You see this is either exactly the right or exactly the wrong book you’d want your mental health worker to be reading if you were a patient. Why? Well Little Hands Clapping is a very funny, very dark and delightfully twisted book about love, suicide and the disposal of corpses. Oh and a museum curator who eats spiders. This seems to make perfect sense after a while.

Let me give you what I can without spoiling. We open in a small town in Germany where we find a museum devoted to suicide, managed by the arachnophile curator. Said museum established by a woman with a passion for Pavarotti and a desire to turn the desperate away from death and towards life. Well it works for some. For others it becomes a place to commit their final act and so leave behind their troublesome bodies. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view I guess) the local doctor – a man with a tragic past – has both reason and facilities to ensure, for a while at least, an unremarked disposal.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country a love triangle is taking shape. The handsomest boy and the prettiest girl in the village were destined to fall in love. The baker’s son was destined to suffer unrequited love for the prettiest girl and so play melancholy tunes on the euphonium. And so it might have remained had not our beautiful, charming couple moved to the big city, setting in motion a chain of events that will bring their story to the museum.

What do I love about this book? Apart from the cast of always eccentric, often downright weird, sometimes creepy, yet recognisably human characters and the sharply drawn and blackly comic scenes and plotlines is Rhodes’ ability to go beyond slapstick and find pathos with perfect pacing and brevity. This is a relatively short book and that is just fine because comedy, even well drawn emotionally intelligent comedy like this, should be short and to the point. Consider the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth (what do you mean you haven’t seen it – go find the series on your favourite online retailer, buy it, love it). Never a word or scene wasted, always something to say and with the ending the story deserves. And that is Little Hands Clapping. Gormenghast without the turgid bits. The League Of Gentlemen with a heart.

Proofing the above, I note my review is shorter (thank God you cry) than usual. No mention of subtext, no attempt to discern the secret heart of the writer, no comment on his prose style (OK one – Following Strunk and White he knows exactly how to ‘omit unnecessary words’ – good man!). You want to find out more, go buy the book. I think Rhodes would like that and although he may appear to be a nice guy, you have to wonder about a man who... well it’s the genitals again... anyhow best to keep him happy I think. So get it today. The cover is purple, which is a welcome bonus.

As I have space, let me throw in a bonus review. You see the publisher also sent me Rhodes’ Anthropology. A series of one page shorts on the theme of love. Here we find Rhodes pared to the bone – each tale punchy, some hilarious, some twistedly tragic, all insightful and all readable in under a minute. This is the book every bathroom needs; and I mean that in the best possible sense. It now sits alongside my copies of The Bunny Suicides and The Pocket Book For Boys. And somehow that seems right...

Visit the site dedicated to all things Rhodes here.

And read our interview with Dan in our printed edition here.

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