The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

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What an engaging, enraging but weirdly unsatisfying read! I found myself sitting on the fence with this one – while I enjoyed its narrative drive, and read it in a couple of sittings, I’m not sure I liked it very much – but then, is a book that is centred upon the slap a man gives a child not his own meant to be likeable? It’s meant to be thought-provoking, and it certainly did that for me, but I was confused about the aim of the novel once I finished it. I’m not sure what Tsiolkas was trying to say.

Australia, and perhaps Melbourne in particular, comes across as a very permissive society, if riddled with class and race prejudice. In The Slap, class is defined by how much money you earn, the car you drive, where you live, the house you live in. Melbourne may well have a wealth of cultures, but they don’t sit easily alongside each other. Here’s Rosie, the mother of the child who was slapped, reminiscing about something Hector, Australian born of Greek ancestry, once said:

She recalled a conversation during dinner from over a decade ago, when Hector had expounded how Australian drinking differed from all other cultures in its extremity, in its lack of conviviality, in the way it centred on the pub bar and not the dinner table… How Hector had been able, without any malice in his tone or distaste in his demeanour, to fill that word, Australian, with such derision.
        
It’s the children of immigrants who are the most successful in The Slap; their lives are filled with excessive consumption – you are what you own. It’s a society more amoral than immoral, where drugs – illegal and prescriptive – are a normal part of everyday life, and where infidelity is normal.

The slap is witnessed by eight different characters. Each chapter delves into the life of one of these characters, their thoughts, and their motivations for doing the things they do. Strangely enough, getting into the heads of each character didn’t make them more likeable for me, in fact, the more I knew about each person, the less I liked them. I don’t need to like a character in order to like or enjoy a book, but in this case, because everyone was so awful in their way, which isn’t helped by a very flat, unlyrical style that doesn’t really differentiate between characters, there is no definite conclusion that you can reach. Tsiolkas seems to go out of his way to be evenhanded: Harry, who slapped Rosie’s child, may have done it to protect his own – but then his private life is full of violence. Rosie may well be too overprotective of her child, which is understandable, but is desperately bitter, refuses to accept Harry’s apology, and ends up lying outrageously to her son.

It’s easy to judge, though, and I think that this is Tsiolkas’s point: making a judgement upon someone is risky and inevitable and based on prejudice. And they more you know someone, the easier it is to cast judgement on them. But no one is exempt, everyone’s thoughts are suspect, the motivations for their actions dubious and no one is innocent. So perhaps in that case, we can’t judge others if our own lives can’t withstand inspection.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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Midlake and John Grant at the Leadmill, Sheffield, 29 June 2010

Since we’ve moved to Sheffield, I haven’t been to see any gigs up here, which is sad for me because I love seeing bands play live. So I was really looking forward to seeing Midlake, who had just come from playing Glastonbury.

The support act, John Grant formerly of the Czars, won over the crowd immediately by saying that he had always wanted to come to Sheffield as he’s a fan of Cabaret Voltaire – although his music couldn’t have been more different to the electro-punk pioneers. Rather, it was very piano- and guitar-based, backing up his incredible voice. His set was short, but I loved it, and definitely wasn’t the only one of the audience who was left wanting more. I hadn’t encountered Grant’s work before the show, but it’s very intense, with wry, bittersweet, self-deprecating and often very funny lyrics. ‘Sigourney Weaver’ made me laugh out loud. First thing I did when I went home from the gig was to download his album The Queen of Denmark. It’s great stuff.

Here’s ‘I Wanna go to Marz’, the video’s kind of disturbing, just to warn you.

I liked Midlake a lot before I saw them play but I love them now. They clearly enjoy playing together, and their music has a lot of depth and texture that works best when played live. They’re also unashamedly unfashionable, and not in a knowing, ironic sense either. I got America and Fleetwood Mac in the harmonising vocals, but more organic and folksy. Hard to properly pin down.

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Taken with my mobile, and not a great photo, I’m afraid, as it doesn’t really give you the scale of the band (there were seven onstage) but hopefully gives you a flavour of what they’re like – the guitarist at the front also played the flute, in fact, there were often two flutes playing at the same time. Here’s their video of their best-known song ‘Roscoe’, they played a blinding version of it on the night.

A problem with Sheffield is that the bands I want to see usually go to Manchester or Leeds. Steve doesn’t want to go so far afield to see bands on a week night, so I’ll just have to go by myself. The alternative is to resign myself to only seeing live music when it comes to town, and after seeing Midlake and John Grant, and enjoying the experience so much, I’m not sure I want to accept that quite yet.

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A picture that sums up my reading habits

If you read the same blogs as I do, you will have already come across Simon T of Stuck in a Book. Recently he asked bloggers to post a picture that best described what they are like as readers. Well, better late than never, here’s mine.

This is a picture of Maud, my cat, my current knitting project, a book (The World of the Short Story edited by Clifton Fadiman, now out of print but very worthwhile tracking down a copy), a peony (my favourite flower) and a beer (which could be substituted for a cup of tea, a glass of chilled white wine or water). My favourite thing is sitting outside in the sunshine with a good book, the scent of the garden and birdsong threading through the breeze. Our cats (we have two, the other is Izzie) invariably come and join us.

Usually they’re not so accommodating.

We named Maud after Tennyson’s ‘Maud’, especially the first line: ‘Come into the garden, Maud’. She’s got a bit of the Victorian lady about her, don’t you think? Lounging about on books notwithstanding.

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My reading life in a nutshell as big as the Ritz

I read almost anything.

I was thinking about this statement as a way of writing my first post for this blog (the only thing more daunting than that first post is that first sentence) and actually there are quite a few things that I don’t tend to read.

  • Non-fiction. This is a shameful to admit to, and I hope to correct this year. I’m drawn towards biography (Lives Like Loaded Guns, Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Emily Dickinson looks very interesting) and narrative non-fiction. I’ve also downloaded Bad Science and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England from Audible. Neither of these are what I’d call narrative non-fiction, but they look interesting nonetheless.
  • Memoir. Classing this as separate to biography. Perhaps I avoid as I find the author too close to the subject matter?
  • Poetry. This is utterly, utterly shameful of me. I must admit to a bit of a reverse snobbery about this – there’s something about poetry that seems to me to be both pretentious and confessional, and if a memoirist is, for me, too close to the subject matter then I find a poet doubly so. But then I read ‘Twenty-Sixth Winter’ by John Dofflemyer (Guardian, 8 Feb 2010), which is powerful and stark, and – despite its brevity – conveying, somehow, the whole of a working life and the relationship between man and animal. And it made me cry.
  • Books with spaceships on the front cover. But I don’t avoid science-fiction altogether (see below).
  • Books with swords, dragons, or other fantasy paraphernalia on the front cover. But I don’t avoid fantasy altogether (again see below).
  • Big, chunky airport novels where the type is really big, and the margins really large, to make it seem as if that doorstopper of a book has the content to match.
  • ‘Cosy’ crime/mysteries. Surely an oxymoron?
  • Young adult novels. Again, there may be a bit of snobbery on my part here. I have read ‘crossover’ YA fiction – Philip Pullman, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – but as I’m not the market for YA fiction, I don’t seek it out.

So what do I read? Literary fiction, definitely – favourite authors include Iris Murdoch, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Angela Carter, Muriel Spark; Classics (Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope to name just a few); Crime, especially psychological crime (Denise Mina, Nicci French, Sophie Hannah); and I enjoy authors that are sometimes classed as science-fiction or fantasy writers, but whose books are a reflection and commentary on modern reality rather than an imaginative exploration of unknown worlds. These authors include Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman and China Miéville. I’m also a sucker for anything with a supernatural bent; I like to be a bit scared or creeped out. Nothing too gory though.

I like novels that make me cry (The Time Traveler’s Wife), that make me think (The Name of the Rose), that teach me about lives in other countries (The Memory of Love), that are totally indulgent (Cold Comfort Farm), that make me laugh (The Confederacy of Dunces, A Fraction of the Whole), that deal with personal and family relationships (Anne Tyler, The Ghost at the Table), that amaze me with the beauty of the language and the depth of the author’s imagination (Cloud Atlas, The Sea The Sea, pretty much everything by Angela Carter). But above all, I want to be entertained and engaged. Much like every other reader.

So that, in a nutshell (a pretty big nutshell, a nutshell as big as the Ritz), sums up my reading life. I’ve enjoyed so much reading other people’s blogs – I hope that I can make a contribution to such an interesting, varied, intelligent and, erm, well-read community.

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