Early in Dan Rhodes' fourth novel, a drunk meanders down a darkening street, singing about a soldier and his sweetheart. It begins with the soldier asking whether Frieda will love him if he only had one eye, to which Frieda says yes; and ends with him asking if she'll still love him if there's nothing left of him to love, to which she also assents. In the twisted world of Dan Rhodes, it is described as "a simple song of true love" – a sentiment that perfectly encapsulates his macabre and oddly touching attitude towards love, death and obsession.
In Little Hands Clapping, all three converge at a forbidding-looking museum in the old town of a grand, Mittel-European city. Its bleak subject matter – suicidal tendencies throughout human history – is only matched in sobriety by the funereal old man who runs it for a Pavarotti-fixated benefactor and her Pavarotti lookalike husband. The aim of the exhibits is to persuade the depressed that life is very much worth living. The alarming number of suicides that take place there, however, suggests that the project has had the opposite effect.
That the novel's title, a quotation from Browning's Pied Piper, links neatly to European myth and legend is apposite. Rhodes's fictions have always had the quality of corrupted fairy stories. But Little Hands Clapping is a more sustained, consistent narrative than his delightfully shaggy shaggy-dog story, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, and one that draws out some of Rhodes' best writing.
While never losing sight of the monstrousness that ensnares his characters, Rhodes remains gloriously, mordantly funny. Similarly, his blend of moon-eyed, gothic romance and innocent desire provides a unique spin on a well-worn, Garcia Marquez-style love triangle. None of this shows any great leaps stylistically or thematically, though it does have a more conventional feel than his earlier books. At rare times it can feel too polished and neat but this is more than compensated for by his supremely skewed imagination.