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