By Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin, 2008
Winner, Commonwealth Writers Prize 2008
General reading value: 5 /5
Armchair travel value: 3.5/5
Does anyone remember Geoffrey Robertson’s show Hypothetical? In it, the eminent barrister would pose a particularly difficult question about a moral issue and ask a panel of people to debate the question. As the show progressed, Robertson would add further details to the question in an attempt to see whether people’s views changed with the extra details. It struck me that much the same could be done with the moral issue at the heart of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap such that the sequence of questions might be as follows:
Is an adult ever justified in hitting a child?
What if the adult is trying to protect their own child from the child who is hit?
What if the child who is hit is only four years old?
What if the child who was being threatened is more than twice the other child’s age and size?
What if the four-year-old was, however, threatening the bigger child with a cricket bat?
This is what makes Tsiolkas’ novels so compelling, entertaining and, also challenging; nothing is ever black and white and topics about which you thought you had strong, definite views, are presented in such a way that you find you begin to question yourself and wonder to what extent various contingencies could cause you to change your mind. The slap upon which the sequences of events within this book hinges is but one of myriad issues raised in this novel which also include infidelity, drug-taking, domestic violence, attitudes to parenting, racial conflict, sexual identity and class consciousness.
The book begins with a BBQ at which one adult guest, Harry, slaps the four-year-old son, Hugo, of another couple (Rosie and Gary) when Hugo threatens to hit Harry’s own child with a cricket bat. Hugo is an obnoxious brat who has been tormenting the other children throughout the BBQ and irritating the adults, many of whom believe he is over-indulged by his mother, who still breastfeeds him and who, along with her husband, fails to engage in any discipline whatsoever of the boy.
The slap of course provokes a diverse range of reactions from the other guests. The parents of the slapped boy are enraged and devastated, others are equally condemning of Harry yet there are others who feel that while perhaps it is not appropriate for an adult to hit a child, Hugo needed to be punished and probably had some sort of similar action coming to him. These various reactions are explored through this and subsequent chapters, each of which is focused upon one of eight attendees at the BBQ.
As Rosie and Gary press charges against Harry and take him to court, the slap thus provides an ongoing narrative thread, cleverly weaving the eight sections of the book together while also enabling Tsiolkas to almost create separate short stories concerning other challenges and crises facing each of the main characters.
Of course, sides are taken, and each character must battle with their own personal views regarding the slap – views which, of course, are influenced by the relationships between the characters, the events occurring in each individuals’ life and the power and politics that inevitably underpin a group of disparate people who have been thrown together by blood relations or long-term friendships, work or school and/or culture or class.
The characters to whom individual chapters are devoted range in age from 16 to 70-odd, enabling Tsiolkas to explore issues ranging from growing up, making mistakes and finding oneself to getting old and facing the inevitable loss of not only friends and acquaintances but also the cultural and societal norms that must change as younger generations come to redefine them. What makes Tsiolkas such a brilliant author is that he is able to capture the voices and experiences of different generations, cultures and classes without conveying judgment or evaluative comparison.
As a book representing Australia, it differs from many which might be termed “Australian classics” in that there is very little narrative devoted to descriptions of scenery, geography or place. As an Australian myself, I was torn between the many choices I had for which book to read for this post – do I go with the highly respected yet -let’s face it – often unreadable Patrick White? Do I go with the obvious in Tim Winton? Do I go with a real Aussie blockbuster like The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey or Remembering Babylon by David Malouf? In the end, I went with The Slap pretty much by default – the mini-series of the book was about to start on tv and I wanted to read the book before I watched it.
So how does The Slap go as a representation of my country? The focus is very much upon what it means to be an Australian living in multicultural Melbourne in the 21st century and it presents a picture which, while I am not necessarily disputing the accuracy of,I am not entirely comfortable with. Is there really so much casual sex and drug-taking, cultural disrespect and emotive, often violent relationships among friendship and family groups? If so, the reflection Tsiolkas is presenting is not a flattering one. And despite the fact that I stayed up until all hours completely engrossed in this book, I felt pretty appalled by the behaviour of many of the characters and the conclusion I reached at the end was that this volatile group of people would be much better off not interacting with each other and finding others who might bring the best out of them – as opposed to the worst.
The mini-series is currently screening on television in Australia and is once again provoking heated and divergent discussion both in the real world and in cyberspace – (I have found myself debating whether the actors chosen to represent each of the characters are suitable as I think one in particular has been completely miscast!). The intensity of this discussion is testament to the passion which this book evokes and for that reason alone I highly recommend it and believe it would be equally enjoyed by men and women, young and old.
Next post is a fitting one for spring, Ismail Kadare’s Spring Flowers, Spring Frost set in Albania.
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on Australia…
Area: 7,617,930 km2
Religion: Christianity is the most common.
Delay your stay: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf; anything by Tim Winton but particularly Cloudstreet; The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey; Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White; My brilliant Career by Miles Franklin; Eucalytpus by Murrary Bail; Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy; Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner; My Brother Jack by George Johnston; Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.