The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

Purchased at Chapters.ca

For readers who pay attention to book prize competitions, The Slap is an interesting prospect. Christos Tsiolkas’ novel, first published in Australia in 2008, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It is on this year’s IMPAC longlist. However, its UK publication did not occur until this spring, so it is one of those Commonwealth novels (like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) that comes to its Man Booker Prize eligibility with some history.

Enough of prizes, what about the book? In a lengthy opening chapter, Tsiolkas introduces a dizzying cast of varied characters at a Melbourne barbeque. (If you are serious about the book, you might want to read this opening chapter twice — I did and found that to be very useful.) The barbeque is hosted by Hector (who is Greek and his parents are there), married to Aisha (she’s Indian) and includes an array of characters who capture the Australian version of multi-cultural experience. Anouk is Jewish, Bilal and Shamira have converted to Islam. And that is only a start.

The incident that will frame the book occurs during a children’s cricket game at the barbeque. Hugo, now approaching four but still nursing at the breast of his hippie mother, Rosie, throws a fit when he is lbw’d (while I know that means “leg before wicket”, I don’t know much more — Hugo knows even less). Hugo raises his cricket bat to strike another player who is both older and bigger. Hector’s cousin, Harry, intervenes:

“Let me go,” Hugo roared.

Harry set him on the ground. The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight. The little boy looked up at the man in shock. There was a long silence. It was as if he could not comprehend what had just occurred, how the man’s action and the pain he was beginning to feel coincided. The silence broke, the boy’s face crumpled, and this time there was no wail: when the tears began to fall, they fell silently.

From this point on, The Slap moves into wide-screen novel territory. The challenge of building a 483-page novel on the basis of a slap delivered to a spoiled three-year-old at a barbeque, with no real injury resulting, is not one that many authors would choose to face. Tsiolkas makes that choice; the reader needs to follow him.

The remainder of the novel locates aspects of the fallout of the slap told from the point of view of seven different people who were there (Harry, Aisha, Anouk and others). Yes, they all have a point of view about the slap but the incident mainly serves to bring forward other aspects of their character and their lives, which is the way the author exploits his device. They are, for the most part, prosperous young adults living very well in a First World country, albeit a minor power. In North American terms, they are middle-class people facing both middle-class challenges and opportunities. The Slap produces a troubling diversion since Hugo’s hapless mother insists on criminal charges and his alcoholic father goes along — that means that many of these characters will have to emerge publicly with their opinion — but it is still a background irritant in most of their life stories.

The central characters do have overlapping parts of shared history, be it as friends, family, work colleagues or whatever. Tsiolkas is at his best when he explores the strength of the ties that those shared histories produce. Here is an example as Anouk, Aisha and Rosie, sitting in a bar, contemplate the conversion of Terry, an Aborigine, to becoming a Muslim and hooking up with Shamira, another convert:

Anouk lit another cigarette. “I’m not sure it takes any more courage for an Aborigine to become a Muslim than a white guy.”

Rosie shrugged. “I think in this world now it takes courage for anyone to call themselves a Muslim.”

“And Shamira? I guess she became a Muslim to marry Bilal.”

“No. That’s not it. She had already converted. They met at a mosque.”

“Really?” Anouk looked astonished. “What the fuck makes a yobbo chick like her become a Mussie?”

“She heard the call.”

“The what?”

That passage illustrates my frustration with The Slap. On the one hand, Tsiolkas has put together an interesting cast of “ordinary” people, located them in an intriguing world, parts of which I know well, parts not, and opened up an exploration of their life. On the other, to make his story work he often approaches melodrama (and yes, for this reader, descends into it). The conceit of basing the plot on the slap wears thin half way through the book, but his characters do their best to overcome that — and succeed more often than not.

Tsiolkas has a narrative style that well suits his approach. His writing is brisk; he has a flare for using detail to advantage and, for the most part, his characters do come to life. As a reader who does not know Melbourne at all, he also does a good job of creating an urban community — both the parts that are attractive and those that are not. (For a couple of views from readers who know Australia much better than I do check out Reading Matters and ANZ LitLovers.)

But, in the final analysis, a novel of this length needs to be more and that is where it failed for me. The literary tactic of using individual characters in succession to develop the story carries a lot of risk and for this reader did not succeed. The author needs to locate his most interesting personal stories at the end of that list; instead Tsiolkas opts for a couple of individuals who are peripheral to the main story lines. They offer some interesting observations, but the whole thread of the book tends to get lost.

Obviously, a couple of Prize juries have had a different assessment. And there is no doubt that The Slap is a very readable book; a worthy effort that I think could have been more.

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18 Responses to “The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas”

  1. whisperinggums Says:

    It’s interesting to see a review of this book from a non-Australian, Kevin. As I wrote in my review (http://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/christos-tsiolkas-the-slap/ ), I don’t think Tsiolkas is really about the plot here – the actual slap issue resolves quite a way before the end. I do take your point a little about melodrama – he does pack a lot in there – but I think he is exaggerating for effect and this is because, it felt to me, he has some things he wants to say about western society and how we relate to each other.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    I agree with Whispering Gums: it’s interesting to see a review of this book from a non-Australian perspective. I know, for me, it wasn’t so much an Australian city I recognised (I was born in Melbourne, grew up outside of it, then returned and lived there in my early 20s for a short period but always the city I identify with as “my” own), but more the fact that here was my generation (of 40-somethings) being presented in literature in a way I hadn’t seen before and which I strongly identified with. (Tsiolkas was actually editor of Melbourne University’s magazine when I was an undergraduate, a fact I only discovered recently, so we are of similar vintage.) But I do take your point that he uses characters that are peripheral to the main story lines, but I quite liked this, because it would have been so much easier to follow the main character’s view points.

  3. Rick P Says:

    I read “The Slap” last year.

    I sort of liked it. I thought the actual part leading up to the incident was very good and drawn out nicely. I thought the aftermath of the incident was interesting for awhile.

    Once Tsiolkas widened his scope away from the incident and into typical societal comment with things like a young man coming to terms with being gay, I thought it became very average.

    I am in agreement with much of Kevin’s review. If it was shorter and more focused on the central plot point, I would have liked it more.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    wg. kimbofo, rick: I think the strongest part of the book, by far, is Tsiolkas’ portrayal of the issues facing a middle-age generation (as Kim notes). For the most part, he does that well, but like Rick, I think he lost track and wandered into some pretty obvious, not very perceptive, story lines in the last part of the book. There are few enough novels set in the present time, with characters who reflect the real-life world of many readers, that I certainly would not want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that just a nudge more could have turned this into a truly exceptional book.

  5. Lisa Hill Says:

    I wondered how it would resonate overseas…

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: The Australia parts move very well, particularly to another Old Dominion. In many ways, setting a study of ordinary middle-class, middle-aged achievers in Melbourne is more appropriate than, say, London or New York. And I think part of my frustration is that this book comes so close to being very, very good, but falls just short of that mark.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      I do agree with you to a degree – and I think it’s the packing in of a bit too much that probably does it. Too many “dysfunctions”/human errors perhaps without mediation? But perhaps it depends on how we see it – Realistic? Or, hyper-realistic? If we see it in terms of the latter, maybe it works a little better?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        wg: I think my problem was that I found the last two sections so predictable that it caused me to question the rest of the book.

        • whisperinggums Says:

          Yes, I can understand that – the bit about Aisha on the conference? And then Connie etc? I wouldn’t rave as some do but my reading practice tends to be to look for what I think the author is trying to do and try to understand that. As a result I often end up sounding like I like a book more than I may have at the start. That’s certainly how The little stranger has worked out for me! I tend not to react emotionally – even when books make me feel emotion, if that makes sense.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I didn’t think you were implying I was reacting emotionally. If anything, it was the opposite — I got the impression the author was tidying things up. Which was too bad, because until then he had done a pretty good job of creating a diverse cast of characters.

  8. Anne-Nicole Says:

    I finished reading The Slap a few weeks ago, and really enjoyed it. One reason why I found myself reading it so quickly was my hoping that Tsiolkas would return to certain character’s point of views. I didn’t want to skip ahead in the book to see if he would return to them, so I just pushed through and hoped I would again experience things through Aisha or Harry’s eyes. Although they weren’t the most likable characters, I found them the most interesting. I think I agree with most comments above that this is where the real strength of the book lies-the characters.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Anne-Nicole: I agree that the best part of this book is the way that the author introduces us to people who might live next door (even though for you and I they are a world away, literally). Like you, I had some favorites that I wanted him to return to — some he did, some not.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, half way through this review I was expecting to be adding this to my TBR pile, the idea of a slap echoing through people’s lives that way was an interesting one and the quotes weren’t bad at all.

    But it sounds like it eventually tries too much, takes too broad a scope, gets a bit lost. I’ll wait and see what he does next.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      Or, look at what he’s done before this as this is his fourth or so novel. His novel Dead Europe was very well reviewed (though must admit I haven’t read it).

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Are there any of his past novels you would particularly recommend? I’ll check out Dead Europe, I like the title for a start.

        • whisperinggums Says:

          To be honest, this is my first of his. My response to you was really to say that he has quite a body of work already that has been well reviewed. Dead Europe is probably the one I’d read next of his. Loaded was made into a film, Head on. He is apparently a rather gentle man, but his books tend not to be about gentle people!

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    This is my first Tsiolkas so I have no useful advice (although I too find Dead Europe to be a promising title). If you have the time, Max, I think you would find The Slap a good fit with your tastes. We are both impressed with the way that Selvon conveys an immigrant community in London — one of the themes of this book is a look at how immigrants play out in a much younger, more fluid society (and Australia is not unlike Canada in those conditions). I know you are also reading Proust and think you might find this an appropriate “interlude” book. Just as Proust explores a community in turn of the century Paris, Tsiolkas looks at a community of people in Melbourne, half the globe away and a century later. I did not dislike the end, incidentally, I just felt it read flatter than the rest of the book — and that could well be more a reflection of my expectations than a criticism of the book.

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