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March 27, 2014

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan

Finished 26 March 2014 and posted on Goodreads on 27 March 2014.

FOUR STARS – Recommended

Style and Substance. A good story told well. A tale worth the time of telling and told with the polish of time in the making. Reading, for me, is an experience on many levels, so a really satisfying read, which is how I would class this one, has to engage and intrigue me on those different levels.

There’s the plotting: Where is this going? What’s going to happen next?

There are the characters: How are they going to turn out? What’s their defining moment going to be?

There are the subject matter and themes.

There is the style.

Flanagan’s novel worked so well for me. 

I learned about the hydro-electric construction here in Tassie. It connected with much of what I knew of the history in the Snowy Mountains. (Long-timers refer to electricity as ‘the hydro’.) It is a migrant world of European refugees, vividly veined with foods and spirits, culture and horror, summed up in the father-figure Bojan.

I struggled early because I do not readily read about domestic violence and there is much brutality in young Sonja’s home-life. The abiding effect on her life is tragic, and the outcome hangs in the balance for most of the book.

The characters of any novel seem to be foreground in my reading. The cultural, historical, political, environmental context is more background. It is unusual that I will finish reading a book without feeling a heightened affinity for one or more of the characters. Not so here. Flanagan allowed me to become intimate with a number of characters through this novel, but I feel withdrawn or separated from them all. Perhaps it is that this is far removed from my experience; perhaps I simply don’t want to be involved long-term with them. It is not a lack in the book or its writing, nor a blemish – it is intriguing.

Flanagan’s writing is what really gripped me. There is the non-linear structure with key events spanning 1954 – 1990. Apparently parallel events and experiences are lined up without care for the chronology but more for the characterisation. The sometimes cyclic and repetitive quality of descriptions imbues the reading with a sometimes ethereal quality. And I am happily blown away by some of his sentences, let alone whole passages. There is mastery here.

I would like to finish with a favourite quotation from the book in which Flanagan captures an aspect of Tasmanian weather beautifully:

… the weather most always came this way to Hobart: wild, mad, its reason lost somewhere out in the aching emptiness of the fish-fat sea, its rhythms those of the roaring forties and breaking waves, huge water-falls rising only to suddenly fall into frothy flatness, hot sun succeeding sleet succeeding harsh hail storms shrapnelling the sea succeeding snow succeeding sun, and all the world’s weather experienced not with the steady waxing and waning of seasons, but known in a morning or afternoon, all time and all of the world and all the seasons of life in the infinity of an hour.