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.”
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.