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Mesmerisingly beautiful, with a big dash of cruelty
on 26 July 2010
Little Hands Clapping is a novel that is quite unlike anything I've read recently. Told as a dark fairy tale, it has been compared to the movies of Tim Burton - although I am not sure the comparison is entirely valid.
Largely set in a Museum of Suicides in Germany, it tells the stories of the old man who works there, a doctor, a young couple of unusually beautiful villagers in Portugal, and various other people. Some drift in and out of the story in a quick dash of fairy tale prettiness, others appear again and again.
Throughout the book, a musical voice is maintained. Stories move quickly through plot, and the characters are archetypal (though not necessarily archetypes you've encountered before in fairy tales), simple, and all the more beautiful to read about because of that. The one thing that cannot be found in this story is a hero. Every character in this story has something dark or quirky or twisted in them, or in their past. No one is simply heroic.
Compared to Tim Burton's movies, this book is much more willing to break taboos, and when its characters are perverted, they are perverted to a point that not everyone may be comfortable with. Which is not to say that the book ever approaches the effect that someone like Glen Duncan can have - in Little Hands Clapping, the horrors of sinister minds are dealt with in a quaintified, pretty way, perhaps delving into the Gothic and magical realism, but never handled as complex psychological, harrowing, real world matters. And it gets away with it.
Perhaps fittingly, then, the theme of the book is beauty. Above all else, there is beauty, and the alluring, mesmerising effect it has. Two of the main characters are iconic beauties. Another character has such heartbreaking beauty that no one can refuse her. Another character has such sad beauty that a thousand men are touched to the point where it changes their lives. Another beauty crushes the life out of one of the main characters, and his own subsequent actions are driven by a beautiful peace he feels inside when he does certain things... With beauty as main theme, is it any wonder that the writing is also intentionally achingly beautiful? Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillermo Del Toro - they are all well known for painting stunningly beautiful pictures on the silver screen. Dan Rhodes does the same on the page, with musical, melodic writing, and a fair dose of cruelty - for cruelty, too, can be mesmerisingly beautiful at times.