Canongate £10 (313pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Little Hands Clapping, By Dan Rhodes
Friday 05 February 2010
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Emma Watson on Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak: 'Even worse than seeing women's privacy violated is reading the comments'
- 2 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Cee Lo Green: It is only rape if the victim is conscious
- 5 Katie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge: ‘I hate fat people for making me do this’
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
North Korea threatens Britain over 'mud-slinging' Channel 4 thriller focusing on Kim Jong-un's nuclear weapons programme
Olivia Colman and Mary Berry top Radio Times' female power list
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain