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.