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Review: 'Sound of One Hand Clapping' tells story that should be heard


April 13, 2000
Web posted at: 5:15 p.m. EST (2115 GMT)

'The Sound of One Hand Clapping'
by Richard Flanagan
(Atlantic Monthly)
432 pages

(CNN) -- A story of war and betrayal, unstoppable love and redemption, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping" evokes joy and anguish in the same breath. From the first page to the last, Richard Flanagan draws his readers into a story of a father and daughter first torn by war, then further ripped apart by its consequences.

Flanagan uses this family's story to tell the tale that countless European emigrants lived: the attempt to rebuild their lives in a strange and unforgiving land while sorting through the scars of war and their toll on the human spirit.

A bitter beginning

"The Sound of One Hand Clapping" is set primarily in a post-World War II construction camp for a hydro-electric dam in Tasmania, Australia; periodically it flashes back to war-time Slovenia, and forward to modern-day Australia.

This lyrically written novel begins with Maria Buloh walking into a blizzard, leaving her husband Bojan and 3-year-old daughter Sonja, never to return. The reader follows Bojan and Sonja's struggle to make sense of her actions.

Bojan turns to alcohol and young Sonja is passed around from one family to the next until she eventually comes back to live with her father, whose drunken nights have turned abusive.

At the age of 16, Sonja leaves her father behind and tries to forget her pain -- something she has been striving to do from the moment her mother closed the front door on the family. It is not until Sonja is well into adulthood that she can no longer ignore her emotions.

Powerful imagery

It is no surprise that this Australian novel was made into a movie. Flanagan uses powerful imagery and metaphors to tell a larger story.

Bojan is building a dam which takes years to construct; its final purpose is to trap millions of gallons of water behind a wall, only letting out what is needed on a daily basis. The dam represents Bojan's life precisely, and the reader sees this father's carefully constructed shields and the calculated release of emotion on every page.

These literary devices are a bit obvious at times, but Flanagan shows the complexities of his characters with such expertise that the reader can easily forgive him. The author manages to portray an abusive drunk as a man of honor, and gives a young woman who has suffered a lifetime of abandonment and betrayal the capacity to love.

Although the flashbacks occasionally slow the story down, Flanagan brings the past and present together at times when it matters most, building the suspense to the final pages when he reveals what happened to Maria Buloh and why she left her family.

Without spelling it out letter by letter, Flanagan lets readers draw their own harrowing conclusions.

"The Sound of One Hand Clapping" is a story that Flanagan clearly had to tell, and one that should be read.

Stephanie Bowen is a graduate student in writing at the University of Southern California.

A Chat With Richard Flanagan About ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’
April 4, 2000

Atlantic Unbound

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