The Slap draws the reader into a world of intrigue and betrayal, where every kind of prejudice explodes into something more.
Reviewing a book that has won a major literary award and is a bestseller to boot can be a daunting task, because the temptation to play safe and fall in line with the herd is powerful indeed. Christos Tsiolkas' fourth novel, The Slap, a Commonwealth prizewinner that has earned acclaim and popularity in equal measure is guaranteed to pitch your instincts against the weight of general opinion.
If your instincts prevail against such odds, a vague sense of guilt is the result. For Tsiolkas is, undoubtedly, a formidable talent. Unfortunately, he knows his strengths and gets sufficiently carried away by them to leave us wishing his editors had been more ruthless about reining him in.
The basic premise, intended to hold the novel's multiple narratives together, is an incident that takes place at a barbecue in a suburban Melbourne home, witnessed by the host and his guests. Greek-Australian Hector's hotheaded cousin, Harry, slaps an obnoxious three-year-old Hugo who has threatened his son with a cricket bat. The boy's parents are outraged enough to file charges. Was the punishment justifiable preventive action or a case of child abuse? Who is to blame—Harry, who has resorted to marital violence in the past or Gary, Hugo's alcoholic loser of a father? Or is it Rosie, his emotionally crippled mother, whose insufferable righteousness conceals a life on the brink of collapse in which she treats her son — whom she continues to breastfeed — as her lone crutch? Opinion on the issue is sharply divided and the battle lines are drawn, creating dissonance within families and between friends.
But everything is not as it seems. Tsiolkas has a way of withholding truths from us and exploding them in our faces when we are least prepared for them, thereby significantly altering our own response to the close-knit group of friends, relations and colleagues and their views on the incident that has so dramatically polarized them. As the novel progresses, we find ourselves evolving in our attitude towards them, slowly distanced from those who had seemed likeable at the outset and more indulgent towards the individuals we had initially perceived as despicable.
The story unfolds from eight points of view, reflecting the varying perspectives of the witness-protagonists, with a chapter devoted to each. While the author avoids the first-person narrative with its obvious advantage — dramatic immediacy — portraiture is certainly his forte. His unerring feel for every nuance of human behaviour as he paints each of his characters in exquisite detail is breathtaking. His insights into the feminine psyche (four of the narratives are devoted to his female protagonists: Hector's wife, Aisha, her subordinate, Connie, and her friends, Anouk and Rosie) are incisive to the point of being uncanny, but the most compelling of his infinitely complex narratives is, perhaps, the one that centres around Manolis, Hector's father, offering, as it does, a sensitive portrait of older Greek immigrants caught in the confusing tangle of life in a society they consider alien to their culture.
So beguiling, in fact, is Tsiolkas' craft that it momentarily keeps us from realising how far he has strayed from the story's central theme. It is only later that we wonder why the author needed to delve so deep into the lives of each of the witnesses when the incident that initially set them off against each other would be legally resolved — albeit in a rather anticlimactic manner — halfway through the novel. With the build-up to what we had anticipated as an explosive denouement cut brutally short, the story meanders along, its impetus increasingly attenuated en route, even if we are allowed a peep or two at the skeletons within various closets that subtly change the status quo with retrospective effect.
The reward, if you can call it that, is a scalpel-sharp portrait of suburban Australian society whose multicultural fabric — Tsiolkas' canvas is peopled with immigrants of different ethnic origins, aborigines and white settlers of contrasting backgrounds and persuasions — is woven with as many uncertainties as prejudices related to class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. In the world he creates, no relationship is sacred. Spouses cheat, friendships are fragile and parents and offspring are often alienated, all “forever partners”, as Aisha puts it in another context, “in a strained dance of pretence and evasion”. It's a disquieting, dismal picture, but not necessarily one that leaves a significant impression.
In the final analysis, The Slap resembles an intricately worked garment in close-up: the finely textured fabric, the minutely detailed motifs, the rich embroidery are spellbinding in their beauty.
Then as you step back for an overview, its flaws becoming apparent. With its unwieldy shape, its less-than-perfect fit, its detailing that is elaborate to the point of being fussy, the overall impact turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.
The Slap; Christos Tsiolkas; Tuskar Rock Press; £ 12.99