The Sound Of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping is one of those novels that has leaves an indelible mark on my mind. Long after I’ll have forgotten the plot details and the names of the characters, I will remember the atmosphere of the book and the emotions I experienced when reading it.
Richard Flanagan’s second novel puts the lives of one family into a sweeping historical context of war and the search for fresh beginnings in a new land. The result is a beautifully written tale that astutely examines despair and pain but holds out a glimmer of hope for the future.
The novel begins in 1954 at a construction workers’ camp in the highlands of Tasmania.
A Place of Safety
Bojan Buloh is one of the many refugees employed there to build huge dams that will convert the region’s abundant water resources into hydroelectric power. It’s physically demanding work that most Australians view with distaste. Yet Bojan and his wife Maria, having fled the atrocities of war in Slovenia, see this as the start of a new life.
But one night during the winter of 1954 Maria walks out of their home, leaving behind her husband and a three year old daughter Sonja. She disappears into a blizzard, never to return. Thirty five years later Sonja goes back to Tasmania to seek out her father. Is she hoping for a reconciliation or does she simply want an answer to the question that has plagued her throughout her life: why did her mother leave?
Flanagan zig zags between the present and the present in 38 short chapters told from the perspectives of both Bojan and Sonja.
They reveal Bojan’s memories of killings and piled up corpses from clashes between Nazis and Slovenians, his love for Maria and his descent into depression-fuelled alcoholic binges after she disappeared.
More significantly the novel traces the decline of his relationship with his daughter.
The young Sonja is offloaded into the care of other families so her father can go to work. He adores the child but as his alcoholism worsens and she grows older, that love evaporates. When he’s drunk he beats her, sometimes so savagely that her blood spatters the walls of their home. When sober again he has no memory of what he’s done and becomes tender once more.
But she never forgets.
What I loved about this book was the psychological sensitivity shown in Richard Flanagan’s portrayal of these two emotionally damaged people. The Sound Of One Hand Clapping shows a man haunted by memories of his past and by the loss of the woman he loves. Both block his ability to grasp the one remaining good thing in his life: his daughter.
Sonja too is haunted by the past. All she has left of her mother are fragments of memories; the lullaby her mother sang on the night she disappeared, the lace on her collar and her footsteps in the snow that the child tried to follow.
… the only word she had for those traces of her past, the single, strange inexplicable word was lace. Sometimes she had a dream in which there was a piece of lace billowing in front of her and when she went to grab it the lace would simply blow away. She would chase it. The chase was always different but the end was inevitably the same: the lace had disappeared into the wind.
The tension between her and her father are at times unbearable. They enjoy intermittent moments of tenderness; when he makes her the first party dress she’d ever owned and they spend weekends at his girlfriend’s farm. But there so many times when he just seems to forget she exists, leaving her sitting in the car outside a bar all night while he gets steadily sozzled. Ultimately the good times fade away completely, leaving a house where beatings and abuse become so frequent, Sonja ends up emotionally deadened.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a melancholic novel for sure but the bleakness of subject is countered by the beauty of Flanagan’s prose. Image is piled upon upon image, adjective upon adjective, sweeping you along in such a cornucopia of impressions and ideas, by the end of a passage you realise you’ve been holding your breath. Some readers might feel that Flanagan is guilty of verbal diarrhoea but I’d challenge them to edit the text without destroying the fluidity that you get in passages like this:
In the great forests beyond, the devils and quolls and possums and potaroos and wombats and wallabies also came to curious life in the night, and they roamed the earth for what little they could scavenge to keep themselves alive, and when they mistakenly ventured onto the new gravel roads that were everywhere invading their world, it was to be mesmerised by the sudden shock of moving electric light that rendered them no longer an element of the great forests or plains, but a poor pitiful creature alone whose fate it was to be crushed between rubber and metal. Having being shown by the electric light to have no existence or meaning or world beyond a glaring outline upon the gravel, each animal was killed easily by the men who drove drunk to and from their place of work, heading to or from the whores and grog and the card games of the bigger towns. By day the roads were speckled red with the resultant carnage and startled hawks feasting on the carcasses would hastily rise into the air dragging rapidly unravelling viscera behind them, a shock of bloodied intestine stretching across the blue sky as if the world itself were wounded.
This is a beautifully written, profound novel about two ordinary people driven to the depths of despair by their inability to overcome the past. It’s gone right to the top of my favourite reads of 2020.
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping: EndNotes
Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania, a descendent of Irish convicts transported during the Great Famine to what was then known as Van Dieman’s Land. His debut novel Death of a River Guide was published in 1996. Since then he has written seven more novels, including The Narrow Road To The Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014.
The Sound Of One Hand Clapping was published in 1997. It won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction and the Booksellers Choice Award. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
24 thoughts on “The Sound Of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan”
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I don’t read much fiction, but I have only read Narrow Road to the Deep North of his and was quite impressed. Will see if the library has this
I thought Narrow Road would be hard to beat but though this is a very different kind of book I thought it was just as superb. His newest has just been published by the way
I’m in the minority (of one probably) who didn’t like this book, mostly because I didn’t think the eastern European migrant experience was Flanagan’s to write. I wrote a review which so lacked positivity for this much loved work that one of our friends has banned me from writing another.
But he married into an Eastern European family. I recall him mentioning in an interview (somewhere) that the story was loosely based on his in-laws.
A wonderful review, Karen. I, too, love this book. I read it years ago (there’s a review on my blog) and the story has stayed with me ever since.
As an aside, you might like to know that I wrote a guide on all of his novels for Penguin Books a few years back: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2016/the-novels-of-richard-flanagan.html
I just read your guide Kim and now I want to read all those books – fortunately I do have all but the one that is not set in Tasmania. Any recommendations for what to read next? I’ve read Narrow Road….
Definitely Gould’s Book of Fish. I read it before the blog so don’t have a review and only remember the story vaguely, but I loved it at the time and it’s one book I have always wanted to go back and reread.
Karen you’ve brought back all sorts of memories for me. Like Lisa, I read this book pre-blog. In fact I think I may have even read it the year it was published. It also had a HUGE impact on me. I seem to recall something about a teapot or teacup, but, like you, it’s the feelings that have lingered all this time. The desperate sadness and despair of the characters and my rage at their inability to let go the past. I’ve often wondered if I could still read such a painful story.
Curiously, I haven’t really enjoyed a Flanagan since then. I tried Gould’s fish a few times, but gave up each time and with the narrow road, Dorrigo, the main character, aggravated me so much, I couldn’t continue. However, I am now a third of the way through his latest, and I’m really enjoying it, despite some reservations about the preachy parts of the story. I guess it’s hard not to be preachy, though, in a book that grew out of last summer’s bush fire season here.
Thanks for joining in with AusReadingMonth – you picked a beauty and a personal favourite 🙂
I would have loved to have read more but I just couldn’t fit everything in. At least the one book I read was a stunner!
You’re dead right about the teaset – one of Sonja’s memories is playing with a teaset when she was a child. She finds fragments of it when she returns to Tasmania.
Wow! I’m impressed my memory held on to that all these years. Thanks for confirming my vague recollection 😊
Im impressed too – but it just shows how much of an impact that book had
A very thoughtful review, Karen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts
This sounds like a powerful and compelling novel. I couldn’t bring myself to read The Narrow road to the Deep North, though I heard the writing was excellent.
The Narrow Road does deal with a difficult topic of prisoners of war in Japan but fortunately not in as much detail as say The Railway Man. It’s a wonderful book but I think One Hand Clapping is even better
I’ve read both Death of a River Guide and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which had a profound effect on me, and so I’ve added The Sound of On e Hand Clapping to my ‘urgent’ TBR. Thanks for the insightful review.
I’m a huge fan of Narrow Road – its one of my top 3 favourite Booker Prize winners of all time. I was hoping One Hand Clapping would be as good but it really exceeded my expectations
I’ve not read this one but still remember Gould’s Book of Fish which must have been published here almost twenty years ago so I understand what you mean about Flanagan’s writing leaving an indelible mark.
I have the Book of Fish and several of his other novels. I’m so looking forward to them now…..
Thank you for the review, I hope to find this book at my local store!
I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North few years ago and I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ve been wanting to read more from Flanagan ever since 🙂 Maybe this is the right time!
I’ve been meaning to read him also having similarly enjoyed the Narrow Road. Fortunately I have a collection of about 4 more of his books already on my shelves..
This is a beautiful review of a brilliant book, Karen. Flanagan is one of my absolute favourite authors. I don’t have a review of TSOOHC on my blog because I read it pre-blog. Would you mind if I reblogged it on mine using WP’s reblog button, which only harvests a short excerpt and then links to yours?
I’m flattered that you think it worthy of inclusion :). Lovely idea — yes of course you can do this.