486 pages, Atlantic Books
Review by Pat Black
The Slap, a novel of consequences and lives thrown in sharp relief by one burst of anger, has that near-mythical “water-cooler chat” status. Even the blurb on the cover invites investigation and courts opinion, asking us: “Whose side are you on?”
Set in contemporary Melbourne, Australia, Christos Tsiolkas’s novel took a while to cross the seas to a British audience. When it did, it was nominated for the Booker, and its wider popularity was boosted by an excellent TV adaptation starring familiar faces from the Aussie teatime soaps and elsewhere. Hello, Melissa George! You’ll always be Angel to me!
Events flow from one incident at a middle class family barbecue when a man strikes an unruly three-year-old boy. This book looks at the fall-out of that one blow, the impact it has on the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic circle of friends and family concerned.
We follow eight separate characters, four males and four females, ranging from an 18-year-old girl to an elderly Greek man. They’re all connected through friendship or family ties and the shockwave of the slap affects them in varying ways.
First up is Hector, in his early forties, a second generation Greek immigrant with a half-Indian wife, Aisha, and their two kids. Hector is hurtling towards a mid-life crisis, but he appears not to know it; he’s sweet on Connie, a high school girl who works at his wife’s veterinary practice, having shared a kiss and maybe a little more with her earlier.
He believes that women love him – he actually insists on it – but has an odd malleability for all that cockiness. He is extremely hard on his own overweight, lazy young son, recognising that there’s a gap between the pair of them that might never close.
What disturbed me most about Hector was his near-delusional thinking, very close to what I imagine happens to someone’s mind when they embark on a mid-life crisis. I’ve always suspected that middle aged “sanity break” for men is a complete myth for two reasons. First: men don’t buy sports cars, pursue younger women, wear clothes 20 years too young for them or believe they can have another crack at forming a band because of some manic curtain that suddenly descends during their fifth decade of life. I suspect that people who do this have always wanted to - it’s just that they didn’t have the time, opportunities or money for it before.
Secondly: men who turn into middle-aged pricks were usually pricks long before the classic signs manifested themselves, in my experience.
But what do I know of this, really? I’m not at that age yet, but it’s not a million miles off. Does there come a time when you start kidding yourself? When you look in the mirror without truly seeing what’s there? When you think that the flecks of silver in the hair are distinguished, or that the extra pounds you were horrified to count on the scales “look good on you”?
Next up is Anouk. She’s a lifelong friend of Hector’s wife, Aisha, who writes scripts for an unnamed afternoon soap opera, of the type people from the UK will know well. This, I thought, was a cute nod to what this book is really about; inhabiting the minds and minor dramas of people’s lives, looking at their families and relationships, the betrayals, the little treacheries. The stuff of soap operas, in other words.
Anouk thinks she has the perfect life; she’s going out with one of the young stars in the soap, who’s almost half her age. She has a brilliant apartment, a good social life, and is paid well to do what she loves. She doesn’t envy her friends, Rosie and Aisha, with their children and all the responsibility and stress that entails. But then something unexpected happens to her.
Next, it’s the slapper himself, Harry. He’s Hector’s cousin, married to blonde, agreeable Sandi, and has a young son, Rocco. The moment we meet Harry, we’re told about his Speedos and his Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses, his beachfront verandah, his go-get-‘em attitude and his (literal) lust for life as he dry-humps inanimate objects while ogling teenage girls frolicking on the beach. To be frank, I hated him.
But we begin to see rhyme and reason in the way he reacted to the little boy at the party, a hint at a sort of primal masculinity. From the days when we first fought each other over the choicest cuts of the mammoth to establish our primacy in the caves, and even earlier, there’s always been a competitive, alpha male streak in even seemingly weak men. We wouldn’t have evolved without it, and we haven’t quite gotten it out of our systems yet. This is a thread that runs through all of the males in this book.
Harry is in touch with his inner ape. To him, it’s perfectly acceptable to slap a misbehaving child. Harry of course is not alone in his assessment of the situation. Indeed, for all he is quick to temper, he’s not short of female admirers, many of whom are excited by that faint note of working class roughness – which they see as savagery - detectable in him.
The key charm of the book, for me, is that it could spark a conversation just as quickly as end it. It’s fodder for talk shows and radio phone-ins. How would you feel about The Slap if it happened at your party? Or if it was your child?
But on top of that, the book is protean; whether you love or hate the characters, it introduces us to rounded individuals we will recognise, whether that’s ourselves, other people, or a discomfiting mash-up of both.
So for all Harry’s strength and braggadocio, there’s weakness, too – something you suspect the guy isn’t even aware he has, strutting around the verandah in his budgie-smugglers. The man who bridles at a child not long out of nappies hard enough to hit him is suddenly overcome with largesse and paternalism towards a cockatoo-haired employee who embezzles a fortune from his business. All of a sudden, the naked ape dons a suit and tie and offers fresh starts and payback possibilities, when even the most reasonable of us would understand if he dangled the fraudster by the heels from a high window just to watch his loose change fall.
Next into the spotlight is high school senior Connie, the object of Hector’s lust. She is obsessed with him, pining over him like he was a pop star, jealous over pictures of him kept by relatives. But she’s got her own imminent-impact adulthood to negotiate, working through the lusts, jealousies, hypocrisy and downright untruths that are the lot of older teenagers. In her part-time job assisting Aisha at the vet’s, she is torn over what she’s doing with her boss’s husband… but not for too long. She steps out most of the time with Richie, her gay best friend, and later loses her virginity at a party – a painful, awkward coupling which just about sums up every relationship in the book.
Along the way, Connie – who is intelligent, but not grounded – tells an awesome lie. She does this for no good reason other than it was the first thing to come into her mind to explain her upset over Hector. The adult within me, the controlled schemer, feared for the way the narrative might turn out at this point, for the consequences of what this girl says in a moment of confusion, pique and pure fancy.
The most intriguing character for me, next – Rosie, the mother of Hugo, the slapped child. She’s a bit of a mess, and so is her husband, Gary. They live in a run-down rented house, strongly committed to new age concerns and earth motherliness. This, you feel, is a way of compensating for the fact that Rosie doesn’t have the same life as her independently successful friends, Aisha and Anouk, being a stay-at-home mother and not particularly well off.
Complicating this is the fact that she is desperate to have a nice house to live in, with a good home for her son and the second child she longs for. This clash between a hippie outlook and firmly middle class ambition is made even more difficult by the fact that Gary is something of a disaster of a man who – on an unrelated note - wants no part in the property ladder rat race. He is a wannabe artist scraping a living as a tradesman, working class and chippy, scornful of middle class comforts, proud of his hard upbringing and a borderline alcoholic. Harry the slapper is their nightmare made flesh; moneyed, smug and powerful. The pending court case begins to take on a bigger significance than a man slapping a child, and doubts begin to creep in for Gary.
In this section we see that case brought to a conclusion, but it’s almost an aside. The main thing is Rosie’s habits, background and thoughts. The nagging idea that she really shouldn’t be breastfeeding her son at his age, that her earth mother stance is just so much wishy-washiness to boost her own self-esteem, begins to gain traction. And then we get even worse revelations: the self-loathing, the wild child past, the difficult relationship with her own mother. And that’s before we get to the court case, a moral crusade on the part of Rosie which threatens to tear her relationship with her friends apart.
Again, Rosie might be someone you want to hate, but once we internalise her own thoughts and feelings, we come to an understanding with her character, if not quite a level of tolerance. Part of the reason for this strange alchemy is the style of the narrative; it has an omniscience which I haven’t come across in a literary novel for quite some time. There’s a lot of showing, but also lots of telling. The narrative follows a character’s thought processes and focalises on their interpretation of events, but will also quite off-handedly toss in some biographical details and flashbacks, spelling out exactly why characters act the way they do. Rather than bogging us down with exposition, this helps us give a rounded view of character traits and motives. It’s quite a difficult trick to pull off, and is one of the book’s more subtle successes.
Next up is Manolis, Hector’s father. He’s an agreeable old buffer who worries a lot. He’s particularly concerned with mortality, looking up the death notices in newspapers to see how other people’s final totals stack up with his own advancing age. He is a stegosaurus compared to his T-Rex of a wife, Koula, sharp-tongued and vicious in her prejudices. This pairing captured the way older couples argue almost effortlessly, slipping in and out of nastiness in the time it takes to flick a switch. This was a cute reminder of other elderly “double acts” I’ve known in life, partnerships endearing even as they mine their deep-seamed mutual irritation.
Less chuckle-worthy was the racism on show from Koula, who cannot refer to her daughter-in-law by name – preferring the epithet “The Indian”. Multiculturalism is one of the book’s major themes. A Greek immigrant family forms the spine of the book, but there are all manner of backgrounds and skin colours involved; as we might expect. Australia, apart from the obvious exception of the Aborigines, is one of the original rainbow nations, with immigrants from all corners of the earth calling it home. Everyone’s from somewhere else, it seems.
And from there, you get the racism. Most shocking to me was the way the word “wog” was thrown around. It looked normalised, almost a term of affection in some scenes. That might be a cultural idiom, but I don’t think so. Tsiolkas appears to be showing us how fundamentally silly these notions can be – in one case, you’ve got a Greek family getting uptight about an Indian woman being in their family, which seems as laughable to me as any other racial barrier. But it’s a complex issue in a complex book. The ethnic groups marry and have children together, as humans must, but they also complain a lot about each other. It seems inescapable.
Manolis and Koula go to the funeral of a man they were once friends with, many years before. From there, Manolis re-evaluates just about everything, especially his relationship with Koula, all passion long since gone. It becomes an examination of how time swallows up friendships, hobbles the flesh and bones, betrays the spirit, equalises everyone. This was my favourite chapter in the book.
Aisha next; and in this part, the book takes a vacation from Melbourne to follow her to a conference in Thailand, before she takes a much-needed romantic holiday in Bali with Hector. In this section we gain an uncomfortable look at how we get used to a partner’s foibles and bad habits, how a shared life can become normalised and thusly contemptible. Hector is struggling with something worse than a mid-life crisis, we see, almost breaking down completely in this chapter. But Aisha has a secret of her own to guard, owing to an encounter she has with a fellow conference delegate which puts Hector’s dalliance with Connie in sharp perspective.
Connie’s gay best friend Richie brings events to a close. Like Connie he’s at an awkward, exciting phase in life; school’s just about finished, the exam results are on the way, university – gateway drug to adulthood – beckons, and the choices in life expand and contract accordingly. Richie’s relationship with his feckless father is revealed before he babysits the slapped child, Hugo. An incident in which the young boy plays up in public sets off a chain of events which threaten to drag every peccadillo into the light.
By the time the conclusion rolls around I felt a curious sense of expiation; please, I thought, no more secrets, no more lies. I wanted to wash my hands of the whole sodden mess. Class, race, prejudice, lust, envy… a smorgasbord of sins and stress points, I felt I’d dined out long enough on them.
But things do work out in this remarkable book. You might suspect an open-ended conclusion’s on the way, but this is not the case. Everything’s mutable. As a poet once said, you’ve gotta pick some people up, you’ve gotta let some people go.