>> Saturday, November 06, 2010
TITLE: The Slap
AUTHOR: Christos Tsiolkas
PUBLISHER: Tuskar Rock
SETTING: Contemporary Melbourne, Australia
REASON FOR READING: I read it for my September book club. We chose it because we wanted to read something on the Man Booker prize longlist, and this one sounded interesting.
At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps an unruly 3-year-old boy. The boy is not his son. It is a single act of violence, but this one slap reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen. In his controversial, award-winning novel, Christos Tsiolkas presents an apparently harmless domestic incident as seen from eight very different perspectives. The result is an unflinching interrogation of our lives today; of the modern family and domestic life in the twenty-first century, a deeply thought-provoking novel about boundaries and their limits...Hector and Aisha are hosting a summer barbecue for their family and friends in their garden in a Melbourne suburb. Everything's going well: the food is good and the multicultural, multigenerational crowd are enjoying themselves. And then a spoilt 3-year-old starts throwing a fit and threatening one of the older children with a bat. The 3-year-old's parents do nothing, but the older child's father does. He slaps the other boy. And everything starts to unravel.
We see the unraveling through the eyes of the different characters, who take turns narrating the action from their points of view, starting with Hector. The Slap, its title notwithstanding, is not really about the slap. The incident provides the excuse and starting point for getting to know these people and understanding the complex and multilayered relationships between them.
Many of these characters are not particularly likeable and quite a few are truly horrible (especially the men), which would normally have made me enjoy the book less. It didn't here. These people are so real and fascinating and unpredictable, that I couldn't wait to find out more about them. They surprised me, and the structure of the book helped. I thought the way it was narrated was genius. The people you end up hearing from are not those you would expect a priori. Even the second person was a complete surprise to me (and I won't describe who gets a section, as part of the fun is discovering that and wondering who's coming next). Once you start getting to know the new narrator, it's sometimes a real shock to see how different they are from the image other people have of them. And yet, it always rings true.
It was also brilliant to get a completely different perspective on Australian life. I realise that since I moved to England I've kind of absorbed a certain conventional wisdom on what life there is like: laid-back, sunny, great quality of life. The picture that emerges here is quite different and quite a lot more complex. The Slap is set amongst immigrants (both first and second generation, from different places), white Australians and aboriginals, and though they would seem superficially completely integrated, there are still tensions. These tensions were clearly simmering all along, but they become even clearer during the fallout after the slap.
I believe there's been some controversy about the often very casually racist language. Most of the characters here use it, especially the Greeks. I guess my first instinct was to think surely this cannot be modern Australia? And then I realised it's not that different from the way it is back home in Uruguay. In any case, it wasn't something I found offensive, as it was more about the author portraying the way people speak than about him actually being racist, if that makes sense?
What I must confess did shock me a bit was the even more casual drug use. None of the characters have a problem with drugs, but every single person we read about will happily go for it, and not just a spliff here and there, either. We're talking about a bit of speed while the children are in the room next door, that sort of thing. Every single one. That was a bit weird.
Still, that was quite minor. The Slap is a powerful page-turner of a story, and I'm not at all surprised it's been the best-seller amongst the entire Booker longlist.
MY GRADE: A B+.