‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

TheSlap

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 483 pages; 2009.

We’ve all experienced those dreadfully uncomfortable moments when a misbehaving child is left to run riot in a public place, perhaps a park or a restaurant or a shop, while the parents are oblivious to the commotion or are unable to control it. But how many of us would step in and slap a child that doesn’t belong to us? That quintessential 21st century moral dilemma is at the heart of Christos Tsiolkas‘ award-winning novel, The Slap.

Tsiolkas, an Australian author of Greek parentage, sets his latest door-stopper in Melbourne’s middle-class suburbia. The titular slap happens at a family barbecue, when a man slaps a bratty four-year-old child who does not belong to him. This one event is to have drastic repercussions on all of those people present. It tests friendships, marriages and family relationships, and it divides people into two distinct groups: those that think the child deserved it, and those that think the slap constitutes child abuse.

In prose that is as bold and as abrasive as the slap at the heart of this novel, Tsiolkas tells the story of what happens through the eyes of eight different characters: Hector, a 43-year-old first generation Australian of Greek parentage, who is the host of the barbecue; Aisha, Hector’s Anglo-Indian wife, who runs her own vet clinic; Harry, Hector’s businessman cousin, who slaps the child; Manolis, Hector’s father; Rosemary, the mother of the child; Anouk, the childhood friend of both Aisha and Rosemary, who is a successful television script writer; Connie, a sixth former who works part-time at Aisha’s vet clinic and is having an affair with Hector; and Richie, Connie’s gay teenage friend.

That’s quite a cast of characters, yet in Tsiolkas’ hands he makes them all vibrant, all different and all incredibly flesh-and-blood real, so that it’s quite impossible to lose track of who is who. The most impressive thing is his ability to get inside the heads of such vastly different people, from an arrogant businessman with gangster tendencies, to a teenage girl caught between childhood and adulthood, and make them all totally believable.

The structure of the book, which follows a linear narrative, avoids going over the same old ground from different points of view. This means the court case, which results from the aforementioned slap, concludes about half-way through the novel. And yet, despite this, the story doesn’t lose its focus or its momentum. (I’m reminded of Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which has a similar narrative structure, and follows the repercussions of a slightly more surreal event: the brief abduction of a young boy. But it rehashed scenes and conversations almost to the point of overkill.)

The Slap is by no means a perfect novel — sometimes the writing feels forced, especially when sketching in the back story for individual characters, and I suspect the numerous music references are going to date it quickly — but its ambition, its scope and the sheer force of the story-telling more than makes up for this. It’s a very bold book, full of sex, drugs, middle-aged angst and a lot of crude language.

But I loved it, and raced through it in just a matter of days, sneaking reading sessions in whenever I possibly could: in bed, on the tube, in my lunch-break, even while cooking the dinner! I think I was slightly enamoured of its quintessential Australian-ness, not just in its references to specific suburbs and streets, but in its depiction of Melbourne as a cultural melting pot full of people with racial, religious and political prejudices all jostling together in relative peace while an undercurrent of friction simmers just beneath the surface.

And, because Tsolkias isn’t much older than myself (he was editor of the student newspaper at Melbourne University when I was an undergrad), the book has a distinct Generation-X feel: it’s about us 40-somethings coming to terms with growing older, and I’ve not really come across that in fiction before. Nor have I come across a book that so beautifully captures John Howard’s Australia, full of people obsessed by possessions, caught up in consumerism and afraid that every Muslim is a terrorist.

The Slap also addresses middle class anxieties about parenting, home ownership and career progression. But ultimately it’s a book about people: what makes them tick and how they react differently to a situation which, in another age, would not have been considered an issue at all.

The Slap has won a whole host of awards, including the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2008, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book in 2009, the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2009 and the Nielsen Book Data Booksellers’ Choice Award in 2009. It was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2009.

It will be published in the UK and the US by Penguin on April 27.

I’m not sure if it’s eligible for this year’s Booker; if it is, it deserves a spot on the short-list.

Advertisements

35 thoughts on “‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

  1. WOW! 5 stars! I loved this book too, but it didn’t quite grab me in the same way it seemed to get you – perhaps because I’m not Australian? but it was a very good, original book. I really hope it gets a spot on the Booker list – I can just imagine the fall-out now! Fingers crossed.

    Like

  2. Jackie, it’s a book that spoke to me on a lot of different levels, not just the Australian aspect. I loved the whole moral dilemma of it and all the comments by various characters slagging off the younger generation, who are so much ruder and selfish than we ever were at that age. I think I love the way it was an intellectual book but it was also hugely emotional.

    Like

  3. A full crown of stars!! As a discussion book I agree this is a perfect novel but unfortunately my experience in reading was an uncomfortable one so I agree with your comment it being ‘hugely emotional’.
    One aspect that was argued with my bookgroup was that of the characters and one particular member could not accept this reflected Australian society in general.

    Like

  4. Sold! Excellent review — I’ve heard nothing but good about the book but this is the first review from someone I know and trust. Now my only question is whether to order the UK version in April or wait for the June 15 Canadian date (I think the Book Depository will be getting an order). And since that is its first UK publication, yes it will be Booker eligible this year. Those of us in the Old Dominions are quite used to books have to wait a couple of years to get into the Booker (think Life of Pi — and by the way the follow-up to that is out this spring).

    Like

  5. Great review, kimbofo. I liked the novel too – and in fact it was one of the very first reviews I wrote when I started my blog last May. It’s a great one to get your teeth into, and I too found it a page-turner even though the plot aspect isn’t strong.

    Like

  6. I really want to read this book, like really, really want to. I have it on the TBR and will be reading it nearer the release date here. Your review has gotten me even more excited about it.
    I guessed this as one of the long listers for last years Man Booker on the Man Booker forum and was told it wasnt electable but I can’t remember why, I wonder if that was full stop or just for last year?

    Like

  7. I can imagine this would make a fabulous book to discuss at a book group. There’s so much in it, not least the whole moral dilemma at its heart.
    As to whether it reflects Australian society in general, I’m not sure I can truly comment, not having lived there for so long. It certainly doesn’t reflect my experience of living in small rural communities, but there was a lot in it that reminded me of what it was like to live in Melbourne, especially when the bulk of my friends were Turks, Greeks and Egyptians!

    Like

  8. Kevin, I kept thinking of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin when I went to write this review. It’s not dissimilar in structure and ambition, but where McCann’s fails to work, Tsiolkas pulls it off with aplomb.

    Like

  9. Thanks, whispergums. You’re right; the plot isn’t particularly strong, and yet it’s a right rivetting read. It’s character-led — and boy, what characters they are! I’ll be sure to pop by and check out your review…

    Like

  10. Glad you loved it as much as I did, Kim.
    Personally, I think what makes this book stand head and shoulders above the pack is its sheer vivacity. It has the same sort of raging energy about it as Balzac and his thousand characters…a sort of hang-onto-your-hat quality that is exhilarating.
    It stands in direct opposition to the self-consciously ‘literary’ novel generally favoured by critics, so it was encouraging to see it so warmly critically received.
    Yes, it still has the smell of paint about it, and the odd drip and wood scrapings (Flaubert it aint)– and probably heterosexual couples with full-time jobs and two kids (Hector and Aisha) might not have as much regular great orgasmic sex, but, hey, who cares?
    I reckon it has the same sort of qualities that Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN has, in that it grabs its readers by the throat, and gives everyone a lovely argument about cause and effect, gender, social responsibility, parental responsibility and morality in general. Marvellous!
    But of course I am a great believer, too, in EL Doctorow’s idea that a book acts as a kind of circuit through which the reader’s own life flows — in other words, if one’s own experience of life does not meet the experience in a book, a reader probably won’t ‘get it’. All criticism is subjective, even literary criticism. . .and most certainly my humble little opinion.

    Like

  11. Ooooh is it only based on being available in the UK at the time (like the Orange) as I thought it could be readily available in commonweath countries and be put forward, now I see.
    Mind you that makes me wonder why Breathe by Tim Winton wasn’t allowed… oh I will never understand these things ha!

    Like

  12. I suspect Breath was probably published in the UK after the cut-off point. I think there’s only a window of a few months, and if you’re published after it then you’re not eligible. You’d think publishers would be fairly wised up to all that though and if they thought they had a potential winner in the wings they’d make sure it got published in good time.

    Like

  13. You’ve got about six weeks to wait, Louise, but it will be worth it… just as long as you’re not offended by crude language and lots of sex. I wasn’t joking when I said it was a bold, brash book!

    Like

  14. Susan, I remembered you raved about this in a comment under one of my posts back in December. I was actually going to wait until British publication before buying, but when I was in Oz I saw it everywhere and decided I should just get it… even though it was a rather hefty book and took up a lot of suitcase space!
    I agree that this book is in a similar vein to Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” because there’s a lot in here that is controversial and will divide opinion, not least the slap, but what about the fact that Rosie still breast feeds her four-year-old?
    Criticism is subjective, and books do resonate more if you can identify with the characters or the storyline or the setting, but I still think you can appreciate a book if it transports you somewhere completely out of your comfort zone. In fact, they are usually the books I like best… and the ones I’m on a constant search to find. Recently I’ve found myself walking into book stores, seeing what’s on offer and walking out empty-handed because it all feels so uninspired. Maybe it’s just time I started reading the classics I’ve never read… ?

    Like

  15. Breath was certainly eligible in 2008 and was the subject of much discussion on the Man Booker debate site (so much that I ordered and read it). It either was not submitted by its publisher (highly unlikely) or wasn’t good enough to make the longlist. It certainly was not dis-allowed.

    Like

  16. I obviously missed all that…In my original reply to Simon I should have said that it “may have been eligible” instead of categorically saying it “wasn’t eligible.” I honestly didn’t know about the furore, but it’s not surprising because I’ve avoided reading anything by Winton. I think it’s because I have this great fear that he mythologises Australian life and thereby contributes to the stereotypes — although I’m willing to be corrected if that’s not the case. Mind you, I read Cloud Street in my early 20s and loved it, but that was long before I developed any real critical judgement.
    What did you think of the Breath?

    Like

  17. I quite liked it and it would have made my longlist. It is what I would call a “modern frontier” novel — couple of kids who are surfers influenced by an older, hippie-like guru. Canada and Australia share a characteristic that both still have “frontiers” and young people who are attracted to them (in my case, given my proximity to the Rockies, it tends to be climbers and mountain trekkers, not surfers). It is a fascinating sub-culture and Winton did a very good job with it. I gather from reviews of his other books that they are all about versions of that Australian frontier — I was impressed enough with Breath and how it related obliquely to my world that I’ll get to them sometime. Not until I have read The Slap and Seven Types of Ambiguity though (comparisons with urban Australia interest me even more), so my Antipodean reading pile is obviously fairly substantial. 🙂

    Like

  18. Oh, yes, Kim, I suppose what I meant was not the actual, novelist facts — which may be very distant from our own experience of course — but the emotional and intellectual truth of a book. Why do some books reach us, and not others? Why does someone fall deep into the trance of a certain book but to someone else that same book means nothing, or at least very little?
    But I would say that, wouldn’t I (being a writer myself I mean). It never fails to astonish me the polarised opinions I’ve personally encountered towards my own work — so I am always interested in knowing how readers reach certain books, what resonates etc.
    Although, just as each reader is a universe, it is bleeding obvious that each reader will have his/her own micro-climate, atmosphere, taste, experience, memories, likes and dislikes blah blah (to mix up the metaphors!!!)
    Always good I think — as you suggest —to go where you haven’t been before — I recently read Joan London’s THE GOOD PARENTS, for example, never read her before, and found her book wonderfully restrained, shot through with beautiful imagery — really, the opposite of THE SLAP, and although quite obviously ‘literary’ — a very beautiful thing indeed…. so there you go, shooting down my own theory!!!

    Like

  19. I can’t wait to read this! This actually happened in a store where I live near Atlanta. It caused such debate – I can’t wait to see what a writer does with the subject. Based on your review, looks like an excellent job! Great review. Thank you.

    Like

  20. Thanks for your comment, Elisabeth. Gee, I bet the store incident created a real furore! You should find The Slap interesting, although I have to warn you that there really aren’t many likable characters in the book, and it’ll likely enrage you. Do come back and leave another comment after you’ve read it.

    Like

  21. FYI, in Canada it’s June 15, *2009* — I’m thinking I’ll run across the street to pick it up on my lunch hour (Chapters appears to be fully stocked).
    Kim, your enthusiasm for this book is infectious!

    Like

  22. Did you study at Melbourne Uni? I studied at RMIT and lived there for 6 years :). Harry’s chapter bothered me because of all the swearing, but I persisted and fortunately the style is different for each character. (I just finished reading and reviewing The Slap a couple of days ago, then Simon mentioned that you’ve read it too)

    Like

  23. Thanks for the review – I’m about to read this one. Meike tells me you’re conducting an interview at the Big Green Bookshop – hope it goes well. I was invited but its a long way to struggle up from the South Coast

    Like

  24. Will be interesting to hear what you think of this one. Its rather loud and in-your-face, so isnt everyones cup of tea.
    Bit nervous about the Big Green Bookshop thing, so thanks for your supportive comment. I plan on writing a post about it shortly letting everyone know. Will be interesting to see how many bloggers turn up to the event!

    Like

  25. Good review. I totally agree re John Howard’s Australia comment and have hear Christos talking about that too, which is really interesting and makes sense of some of the harshness of the characters.
    I work for the company who is turning The Slap into an 8 part TV series for the ABC. It’s going to be on air later this year. If anyone who read the book is interested in the process of it becoming a TV series we’ve been uploading behind the scenes clips as we go. You can find them here: http://www.facebook.com/theslaptv

    Like

  26. I *finally* finished ‘The Slap and really enjoyed it! Your review was spot on. As Julie above me mentioned, yeah it is being made into a series which I will be looking out for.

    Like

I'd love to know what you think, so please leave a comment below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s