‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan

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Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 425 pages; 1997.

I seem to be on a roll with Australian books. This one, my third in a matter of weeks, is by Richard Flanagan, who first came to international prominence with Gould’s Book of Fish, which I read several years ago and loved very much. The book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2002.

Prior to this Flanagan had written two other novels: Death of a River Guide, in 1994, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, in 1997. Like Gould’s Book of Fish, both are set in Tasmania, an island state of Australia, where the author resides.

At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.

This is a book that possesses a strangely heady mix of bleakness and despair, tempered by moments of clarity and joy. Initially I wrestled with the writing style, because Flanagan is prone to overly-long sentences that sometimes so twist and bend out of shape you feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster:

In that long Autumn of 1959, when elsewhere the world was sensing change so big and hard in its coming that it was like the trembling of the earth announcing the arrival of a yet to be seen locomotive, in that month of April in the city of Hobart, nothing much looked like it could ever change around a town that had grown used to never being anything but the arse end of everything: mean, hard and dirty, where civic ambition meant buying up old colonial buildings and bulldozing them quick and covering the dust promptly with asphalt for cars most people were yet to own, where town pride meant tossing any unlucky ferro found lying in the park into the can, and where a sense of community equated with calling anybody with skin darker than fair a boong bastard unless he worse snappy clothes in which case he was a filthy wog bastard — in that month of April when the cold slowly began its winter’s journey, spreading its way down over weeks from the mountain’s steel-blue flanks, on an early Saturday morning, an FJ was wending its way through the scummy back streets of north Hobart to the home of Umberto Picotti.

And it can be hard to get a foothold on the essence of the story when the narrative is non-linear, shunting backwards and forwards in time, and told from two different perspectives.

But in many ways this is what makes The Sound of One Hand Clapping such a wonderfully rich and beguiling read. Hypnotic and unbearably sad in places, it’s a very human tale about two people locked together by a shared past who struggle to rise above the pain of their circumstances.

The story begins in 1954 when Slovenian couple Bojan and Maria Buloh, both scarred by the horrors of the Second World War, immigrate to Australia. Bojan, along with hundreds of other European immigrants, finds work as a labourer on a construction project to build a massive hydroelectric dam in the rugged Tasmanian highlands. Here the weather is harsh and living conditions primitive. One stormy evening Maria packs her bags and leaves her husband and three-year-old daughter Sonja behind. She is never seen alive again.

What enfolds over the next 35 years is essentially the nub of this compelling novel. Bojan drowns his grief in drink and struggles to make a decent life for his daughter. Sonja, unbearably miserable, eventually flees to the mainland. It is only when she is about to become a mother herself that she decides to re-establish contact, returning to Tasmania to make amends with her now elderly father. Her life’s story is then told in a series of flashbacks intercut with chapters from Bojan’s point of view.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a book about new beginnings that shatters the myth of Australia as the “lucky country”. It does not shy away from presenting white Australians as uncouth, uncultured and racist at a period in the country’s history at which immigration was running at an all-time high. For that reason alone, it is a refreshing — and challenging — read.

This critically acclaimed novel won the 1998 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Best Novel, the 1999 ABA Australian Book of the Year Prize and was shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award. It was made into a film directed by Richard Flanagan in 1998.

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7 thoughts on “‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan

  1. Tony, I’ve never read Handel Richardson (I know, the shame) but have read several Patrick White novels. I made three attempts at reading The Tree of Man in my early 20s and ended up truly falling in love with the book.
    In recent years I have read The Solid Mandala http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2007/04/the_solid_manda.html
    and The Vivisector http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2006/10/the_vivisector_.html
    These were both part of the Patrick White Readers’ Group http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/patrick_white_readers_group/index.html which unfortunately fell by the wayside last year.
    I have A Fringe of Leaves in my To Be Read pile.

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  2. Thanks for another great review. I tend to have good luck with Australian authors in general…from picture books to novels. I’m currently reading Sorry, by Gail Jones, an Orange Prize nominee for this year. I also have Gould’s Book of Fish on the stacks, so I’ll bump it up toward the top.

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  3. Now I’m glad I didn’t toss “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” into the St Vinnies box when I packed up house. For about 6 years it has sat unread in my bookshelves because I’d heard so many negative comments about how boring it was. I will start it tonight (now which bookshelf is it on .. oh, there it is … and looky here, I also have a copy of “Goulds Book of Fish” waiting to be read!)
    Someone mentioned Henry Handel Richardson recently .. I’ve recently moved to N.E. Victoria to the little town she once lived where her father was the local G.P. Each year on her birthday there is a picnic held in her memory, in the grounds of her family home, and this year saw the establishment of the Henry Handel Richardson Society of Aust, naming Dame Elisabeth Murdoch as Patron. You might find this link of interest, i.e. I learned from this that her first novel, “Maurice Guest” was made into a movie in 1954, starring Elizabeth Taylor, and then there was “The Getting of Wisdom” http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2008/02/22/2170165.htm

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  4. Winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize and acclaimed as ‘a masterpiece’ by The Times, this MP3 audio book beckoned to me not just by the accolades I had read, but also the alluring cover and the fact that it was narrated by Humphrey Bower, of whom I am a loyal fan.
    This story is unique, yes, profound, yes, and masterfully written. The author is no slouch when it comes to powerful novels – think The Sound of One Hand Clapping or The Unknown Terrorist. Gould’s Book of Fish could well be a study of insanity; a colonial treatise on the indigenous ‘problem’; or a meditation on art and nature. But overshadowing all, by far, is one relentless, harrowing, tale of horror. Not horror like phantasms and ghouls, but man’s inhumanity to man; the setting of Sarah Island, off Van Diemens Land, is a physical hellhole of torture where megalomania and despotism rule over syphilitic, sadistic taskmasters.
    How far should an author go in ‘powerful’ writing? In listening to The Gould’s Book of Fish I got to the point of ‘powerful’ where I was nearly sick; actually stomach heaving and bile rising.
    Is this good writing? Some would say YES. To have words creating such a strong emotional reaction means the writer has engaged the audience and achieved his/her aim. Some would say NO. Such harrowing works should be ‘restricted’ or even censored’. Which leads us to just “whom might this Arbiter be?” A moot point. Our libraries are never in the Censor’s seat, so we the borrower ‘borrow at will’ and what we read is of our own choosing.
    Humphrey Bower does an absolutely magnificent job in delivering the many accents demanded upon him by this novel. He’s a legend in Audio Book World – an Audie-Award [US] winner for The Family Frying Pan by Bryce Courtenay plus many nominations for Brother Fish (Courtenay again), Yankev Glatshteyn’s Emil and Karl; Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlman and Paul Morgan’s Turner’s Paintbox. If you see his name on a talking book, borrow it!
    Back to the book. The Economist reviewer said: “By the end, you may have been dazzled and moved; you may have laughed; you may have vomited — torture, shit and putrescence are everywhere; but whatever else, you will have had your aesthetics shaken.”
    CAVEAT LECTOR! (Reader Beware)

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