Friday, May 28, 2010

The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

Penguin (non-classics)
496 pp.

This book has won a veritable slew [Irish Gaelic sluagh, multitude, from Old Irish slúag] of awards and recognition since its publication:
Winner, Overall Best Book the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2009
Winner, ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year 2009 and Overall Book of the Year 2009
Winner, ABA Book of the Year 2009
Winner, ALS Gold Medal 2009
Winner, Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2009
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize 2009
Shortlisted for the Colin Roderick Award 2008
Longlisted, The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2010 [but missed the shortlist cut]
 Its premise is simple, based on an experience from Tsiolkas' real life:

A small, humorous incident gave rise to The Slap. I was at my parent’s house, a few years ago, and they were hosting a barbeque for relatives and friends. At the time there was a couple there, friends of mine, who had a three year old son. My mother was in the kitchen cooking up a storm – pita, pasticcio, potatoes – while Dad and “the men” were firing up the barbeque. I was in the kitchen helping my mother, and she, slightly frazzled with all she had to do, was getting annoyed that the three year old boy was opening up cupboards and drawers, taking out pots and pan and using them as building blocks. She kept trying to make him stop and go out and play, but he was taking no notice of her. Nearly tripping on a saucepan, she became exasperated with him, pulled him up gently and with the smallest of taps on the bum, said ‘No  more!’
The little boy - and I won’t forget the look of shock on his face - placed his hands on his hips and said to my mother, ‘No-one has a right to touch my body without my premission!’ To which my mother replied, ‘You naughty, I smack you.’
There was no violence in her action and all the adults laughed, including the parents. (from the reading group guide at Allen & Unwin).  
The incident in his book however, in which a small boy is slapped by an adult at a family barbeque in Melbourne, was not a laughable matter to any of the participants. What was supposed to be a great party with friends and family is hosted by Hector, and his wife Aisha. Hector comes from Greek stock; Aisha is from India.  Things turn ugly when 4-year old Hugo, son of Aisha's long-time friend Rosie and her alkie husband Gary,  picks up a cricket bat and threatens to hit Hector's nephew with it. Hugo is one of those bratty, out-of-control kids unliked by the other children there, and his parents don't care.  Harry, Hector's brother and the dad of the kid who is about to be whacked with the bat, takes matters into his own hands when it's clear that Rosie and Gary aren't going to do anything and slaps Hugo, effectively ending the party and causing a great deal of turmoil, as Rosie decides that she's going to call the police and press charges against Harry. The question here: was Harry wrong to slap Hugo, or did someone need to step in because his parents wouldn't? Since friends, co-workers and family are all present, they're all involved in some manner, especially when it comes to taking sides on the issue. Ultimately friendships, family relationships and loyalties will be tested as things come down to the issue of responsibility -- not just in terms of the slap, but in other areas of the characters' lives as well.

The slapping incident and the upcoming court case gives seven different characters an opportunity to examine their connections to and feelings about what happened that day, and to scrutinize their own lives -- who they are, where they are in life, their various relationships, their futures, etc.  It also provides the author with a means to examine several cross-sections of Melbourne's multicultural population and how well (or not) they interact with each other.  Each narrative is from the perspective of a character whose life crosses over into the lives of other characters, providing continuity among the players as well as important histories of the bonds (for better or worse) between them. This aspect of the novel is done well and showcases what's positiveabout the author's writing. His ability to make these people real enough to like or dislike was also well done. 

There are a couple of  things which made me feel that this book was good, but not great. First, some of the scenes tended to be a little on the heavy, melodramatic side, or droned on and on to the point where I felt like skimming to escape. I didn't -- you can't help but read on --but there it is. Second - the tie back to the original slap was often tenuous as each chapter went on and on -- if this was meant to be the one central event that linked all of these people, it needed to be brought back around a bit more strongly now and then, instead of letting the story ramble tediously off into more peripheral areas.

The premise is good, and I liked the story overall, but the writing could have been much tighter, more focused and less melodramatic. I would recommend it with a couple of warnings: first, you're in for a long ride and second, if you don't like romance-novelish sex, masturbation scenes or the gratuitous use of the word c*nt, you may want to try something different -- there's a LOT of that in this book.

 fiction from Australia


  1. Just hopping by to say hello. I love reading mysteries. I've added you to my google reader.

  2. Hi. Thanks for visiting Ordinary Reader. I'm your latest follower!

  3. Thanks for a great review. You showcased what I needed to know.

  4. A friend of mine mentioned this book to me a couple of months ago. She read it for her book club and apparently they had such an excellent discussion. I've got to read this!

  5. I have always wanted to read this book and your review doesn't deter me. It sounds like an amazing premise for a story

  6. Thanks everyone, for stopping by. I didn't mean at all for my review to deter anyone from reading's definitely thought-provoking and a good story, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for a few days after I'd read it.


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