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The Sound Of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan

Tasmania highlands, setting for The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Cover of The Sound Of One Hand Clapping, reviewed at

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.

Psychologically astute

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.

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