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Review: Little Hands Clapping, by Dan Rhodes

An old grey man awakens suddenly in his bedroom and understands that the deed is done - the young woman in whose eyes he saw a desire to end her life has killed herself. Once he is sure that she is no longer alive, he sets his alarm clock and goes back to sleep.

A somewhat esoteric tourist attraction in a small German town is the main setting for Dan Rhodes' latest novel. Little Hands Clapping features a museum dedicated to suicide, whose rooms focusing on famous victims, reasons why people end their own lives, popular methods and unfortunate survivors are actually an attempt to prevent suicides by the museum's well-intentioned owner, a woman known only as Pavarotti's wife.

Troubled by the idea of one of her own precious daughters experiencing such despair, she decided the best method of prevention would be a museum to highlight the problems of killing oneself. Unfortunately for her, the museum has begun to attract suicidal people.

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The museum's curator-caretaker, the old man, wishes only for a peaceful life, so each time one of these tragic events occurs, he contacts a local doctor, who has a mysterious pressing need for corpses. The incident is kept from Pavarotti's wife and from the authorities, to keep the peace for the old man and provide a regular supply of bodies for the doctor's freezer. The doctor is a highly respected member of the community whose tragic widowerhood makes the townspeople pity and respect him to the extent that their symptoms virtually vanish during their appointments. He prides himself on making a difference in his patients' lives, believing that this important work cancels out his little vice.

For some time, the system works and everyone is happy: Pavarotti's wife feels the glow of good works, the old man has a place to live while being able to keep Pavarotti's wife from improving the museum and creating work for him, and the doctor is able to meet his rather unusual needs without destroying his reputation.

But the peace and harmony are about to be disrupted. In Portugal, a young, broken-hearted woman hears about the museum and sets out to join those who have chosen to end their life in one of its rooms. The doctor is panicking about running out of bodies, so when this young woman shows signs of changing her mind, the old man starts to wonder how he can help her along.

Rhodes was one of Granta's Best Young British novelists in 2003 and has published several works since. His first novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, shares some similarities with his latest offering: Both novels feature dogs as important characters (in Little Hands Clapping, the doctor's beloved Hans is to blame for giving away his criminal secrets), fantastical, fabulous journeys around Europe, and the trademark comic storytelling style.

Although Rhodes's earlier work is more substantial and more intellectually engaging than this latest novel, his voice itself is becoming surer and more skilled with time. Despite the emotional limitations of the form, with types and tropes distancing the characters, Rhodes succeeds in making this hilariously sick comedy touching in places; for example, when Madalena reflects on her misguided suicide note.

The characters are not complex, and indeed are often utterly ridiculous and unpleasant, but Rhodes is fond of his creations and never makes fun at their expense. His great strength is finding someone's heart, parsing the nuances of its language, and then translating it for the skeptical reader, even in the unlikeliest places. Part fairy tale and part gruesome whimsy, the delightful inventiveness of Little Hands Clapping will intrigue and entertain from first page to last.

J.C. Sutcliffe is a writer and translator who lives in England and Canada.

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