The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

Review by Gabriel

There were three books that dominated the awards and popular consciousness in Australian literature in 2009 – Tim Winton’s Breath, Nam Le’s The Boat and Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap.  Of the three, I enjoyed The Slap the most, largely because it is the book I have read that best captures my reality of suburban, multicultural Australia.

The plot revolves around an event that occurs at a suburban barbeque, when a parent slaps another person’s bratty child.  This “watercooler issue” serves to unify a series of vignettes on the lives of a diverse group of family and friends, while at the same time highlighting the differences in their values.

One of The Slap‘s greatest assets is that it resonates with truth, capturing the reality of suburban Australia.   The racial, generational and class tensions.  The self medicating of drinks, drugs and smokes.  The despair and confusion over the direction of society.  The materialism.

Each chapter is devoted to a different member of the group, and Tsiolkas displays a stunning ability to quickly establish each character, and to imbue them with a unique and convincing voice.  I found myself looking forward to each new private world that would be revealed – their quirks, their motivations, their shameful secrets.  

Yet while each character is rendered sympathetically, some are more likable than others, revealing the true sympathies of the author.   The child who is slapped is portrayed as a horrible little monster, who has been spoilt by an over-protective mother and is neglected by his alcoholic father, both of whom are Anglo-Saxon.   Many of the Greek characters express hostility and outright racism (reverse racism?) towards Anglo-Saxon Australians, and it is perhaps significant that an Anglo-Saxon man is made into an indefensible villain, especially at the end of the novel.  However, there are a number of more positive portrayals of Anglo-Saxon Australians that could be seen to counter this, most significantly the two younger characters who are given their own chapters.

Regardless of their race, each character has significant flaws and many of their actions will probably polarise reader’s opinion.  In addition to the titular conflict, much of the tension in the novel comes from the concealment of a fling between a forty-something married man and a seventeen year old girl.  Indeed, it seems that the author may intend for many of the events and revelations to be shocking.

While this made for compelling reading, some things about the book seemed overdone, especially the widespread infidelity and use of recreational drugs, not to mention that fact that everyone seemed to be having lots and lots of sex.  Maybe I just have conservative friends.  Another minor complaint is that the friendship group is diverse to the point of tokenism, but I accept that this is a necessary result of the author’s focus on multiculturalism.

It is a somewhat bleak novel.  This is not because of a lack of loving, healthy relationships, but due to the sheer volume of disfunction that is related.  Tsiolkas is excellent at revealing his character’s murkier depths, but rarely expands on their more noble aspirations, making them seem somewhat false and weak in comparison.  However, this may be deliberate.    It is a valid interpretation of Australian culture that we are more eloquent about our frustration and dissatisfaction than we are about our passions.  While I wouldn’t count it as a criticism, it found this bleakness somewhat exhausting, and the only reason I needed to take a break from an otherwise extremely readable book.

The Slap proves that suburbia is a rich a source of compelling voices in the hands of an uncompromising author.  It is an unflinching portrait of Australia during the Howard years, which I would strongly recommend to anyone wanting to open themselves to the myriad of viewpoints in modern society.

PS I accidentally published an unfinished draft of this review, which some people may have seen.  I feel vaguely embarassed, like if someone walked in on me in the dunny.  Let us never speak of it again.


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