Friday, 15 April 2011

Book Review: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap follows the stories of eight characters who were all guests at a suburban Australian barbecue, tied together by their roles as witnesses.  A child is slapped at this barbecue, by a man who isn't his father.

Who would have thought such a small screaming brat could have created such a flap?  If Harry hadn't slapped him I would have.

The cast of The Slap is very multi-cultural and PC (although quite a few of them aren't so PC themselves).  We have the extended family of Greek immigrants, now settled; the white Australian girl converted to Islam; the Aboriginal man also converted to Islam; the Jewish woman dating a younger guy; the young guy who's just come out the closet; the white trash alcoholic man; the hippie woman who breast feeds her kid till it's like four or something; the girl whose father became a woman and then died from an AIDS related illness, along with her mother; the Indian vet married into a Greek family....You get the drift.  But against this liberal leftie ensemble we get vitriol, misogyny and general unpleasantness.

The trouble with The Slap is that I didn't really like any of the characters.  They're all proved to be sly equivocators who say one thing and mean another.  They all seem to be two-timing their partners.  In the end I sympathised most with the two teenagers: Connie and Richie, although I do worry about their future after reading the whole novel.  I really do.

But the reader ends up having to spend time in all these different characters' heads.  Harry, the child-slapper, is the most unpleasant.  We view "the slap" from the perspective of barbecue host and Harry's cousin, Hector.  Harry seems okay from Hector's view.  He was just protecting his own child (the screaming brat looked set to brain him with a cricket bat).  But once we get into Harry's head, well, we just want to get out really.

In a way this works, this constant reappraisal of character that we're forced into.  Eight sides to every story after all.  I like how we're given a glimpse of the character and then move onto another, never to return, unless through another characters' view.

A few things annoyed me however.

For example, some sloppy writing.  The hippie mum has no money.  Her white-trash-alco-husband-who-wants-to-be-an-artist keeps on spending it all down the pub.  They're skint.  Utterly.  Yet she spends an afternoon getting her hair done at a salon before she goes to meet the girls and orders champagne.  

But mainly it was the sex.  Please God Not Another Sex Scene.  I was reading this on a busy train and I actually had to re-angle my book so the person next to me couldn't look over and think I was reading some Black Lace story.  What's with the cringe worthy mild erotica?  The low point for me had to be when the teenage Connie had a bath and found herself appraising the girth of a shampoo bottle.  PLEASE GOD NO.

I've not really read any modern Australian fiction before.  But what I've learnt from this novel is:
- Australia is a melting pot of diversity and ethnicity
- Yet there are a lot of sexist views
- And class is an issue too
- Quite a few parents are so liberal they don't mind their kids doing drugs.  They even chat about it before the kid goes on a night out
- Some of the parents look after kids while speeding
(disclaimer - I'd like to read some other fiction to get a more rounded view)

So The Slap eh.  If you're expecting an investigation about the ethical issues about hitting a child then you won't find it here.  The actual slap is a trigger to explore these (mostly) seedy lives.  But if you're looking for a load of unpleasant, egotistical, mean and lying characters, well, here you go.  And that's fair dinkum.