Book review: Little Hands Clapping

LITTLE HANDS CLAPPINGDan RhodesCanongate, £10

DAN Rhodes is one of those writers who leaves critics scrambling for oxymorons and hyphenated adjectives. One of Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists 2003" and the winner of the inaugural Claire MacLean Prize for Scottish Fiction, his work has been described as "whimsical serio-comic", "reliably odd" and, by no less a writer than Douglas Coupland, "totally sick and brilliant".

Canongate has cleverly published this work, and reissued his delightful 101-word short stories, Anthropology, in jackets resembling the work of the American artist Edward St John Gorey, and a subliminal link to Gorey's eerie, witty, elegant drawings seems apposite.

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Rhodes is a comic novelist – and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in his new novel – whose subjects are grief, neurosis, loneliness, self-centredness and even genuine wickedness. It is delightful and inspiring, in an age where comedy seems polarised between saccharine escapism and snarling satire, to read a novel imbued with wry wisdom.

Little Hands Clapping opens in a backwater German museum devoted to the history of suicide. The Old Man sleeps upstairs until a spider crawls into his mouth; an omen that a visitor has not appreciated the museum's purpose. The owner, an opera obsessed woman who has sculpted her husband into a doppelganger of Pavarotti, designed the museum as a form of psychiatric inoculation. Overwhelmed by her own protective feelings towards her family, the museum shows the gruesome actuality of suicide in order to dissuade the depressed. The swallowed spider means someone has subverted her moral crusade, and used the museum as the mise-en-scne of their self-extinction. The Old Man telephones the creepily upbeat local doctor, Frhlicher (his name even means "cheerier"), who is only too happy to dispose of the cadaver.

Rhodes uses an omniscient narrator to let the reader know that something terrible will be revealed to have happened, and that a character from Portugal – who turns out to be the prettiest girl in her village – will be instrumental in the unravelling of the macabre goings-on. The omniscient narrator is used perfectly for comic effect: it creates the crucial inevitability, like seeing the banana skin and the day-dreaming pedestrian simultaneously.

Although Little Hands Clapping is filled with eccentrics and grotesques, omniscience is the trump card again. Like another celebrated all-knowing individual, Rhodes allows the reader enough private insight into the characters to render superficial judgment pointless. It is not quite "to know all is to forgive all", but to know enough is enough to redeem some characters and more than enough to make the monsters both pitiable and unforgivable.

Unfashionable though it may sound, Rhodes seems to be a fundamentally moral writer. Like a latterday G K Chesterton, he uses wit, irony and a sly, fairytale tone to explore the fraught relationship between happiness and goodness and to calibrate the precise slipperiness of the slope to sin. One of the kindliest characters sincerely believes herself damned, for blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, and each jigsaw-puzzle piece of her past makes the story more humane, hilarious and horrific.

Little Hands Clapping ought to be the book that brings Rhodes out of the "cult favourite" bracket. Indeed, if the writers behind The League Of Gentlemen or The City Of Lost Children wanted a piece of – here comes the critical scrambling – tear-jerking Grand Guignol for their next film project, it would be ideal. Indeed, the most moving aspect of the book is not what happens to the characters, but what it does to the reader: reading it is like taking a deep breath into the lungs of your imagination.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010