This is a powerful and intensely sad novel, which deals with loss, alienation and the power of human beings to inflict pain on those they love most. The title comes from a Zen koan - a philosophical riddle - formulated by the Japanese Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, who asked "You know the sound of two hands clapping; tell me, what is the sound of one hand?" As I understand it, the student of Zen is supposed to meditate on this riddle until insight or enlightenment occurs. The point is that there is no correct answer. The answer students come to depends on who they are, what they know and what they believe.
To me, the connection between the title and the narrative is that the reactions of the characters to the events that occur in their lives are formed by intricate web of history, geography, personality and circumstance. There are no easy answers to life’s questions, neither for the characters, nor for the readers who come to know them.
The novel is set in Tasmania in the post-World War II migrant community. It focuses on the relationship between Slovenian migrants Sonja Baloch and her father Bojan. The narrative goes back and forward in time from a snowy night in 1954 when Sonja's mother Maria leaves her husband and child and walks away from the dam construction camp in which they live, to 1989 when Sonja returns to Tasmania after a 22 year absence, with events taking place in various periods in between.
Although I was immediately taken with Flanagan’s writing and the structure of the novel, it took me longer to engage with the characters, as Sonja and her father are deeply damaged and not very likeable. However, the more I listened to the work, the more it packed an emotional punch. It portrays the devastation of family trauma set against a background of displacement and alienation. It’s also a snapshot of recent Australian history, that of post-WWII European migration seen from the perspective of the migrants rather than from the society into which they entered.
This not a book to read when you’re feeling down, particularly if you’ve had a seriously dysfunctional relationship with your father. On the other hand, it ends on a note of hope and renewal, so it’s not all doom and gloom, even if there is little light and even less humour in Sonja and Bojan’s story.
The audiobook version is narrated by the truly excellent Humphrey Bower, whose voices for the characters are perfect. Well, except possibly for Sonja’s voice. But younger female voices are always difficult for male narrators and at least Bower doesn’t go all falsetto.