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Christos Tsiolkas: The Slap

A book that opens with one of the main characters discussing his farting in bed, while probably appealing to many Australians, does not necessarily work for me. Sadly, the book does not greatly improve. I read it because of the hype. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. It also garnered many good reviews (though quite a few bad ones). The basic principle behind it – a male adult slaps a male child who was not his son, and the resultant fallout – sounded interesting as, indeed, it is. But the book is a good 500 pages long and the story about the slap takes up a relatively small part of the book. The rest is, I imagine, a more risqué version of Neighbours, the Australian TV soap opera which, I must admit, I have never seen. There is lots of sex, everyone swears (do even ordinary Australian women say fuck in front of minor children as a matter of course?), titillating bits of homosexuality and lesbianism, extramarital affairs galore, problems at work, problems with relationships and racial tension. Not necessarily the stuff, in my view, of great literature.

Hector, the bed farter, is a Greek Australian, married to Aisha, an Indian Australian. He is a public service accountant and she is a vet. They have two children, Adam, a surly boy who spends all his time playing video games, and his younger sister, Melissa. Three key things happen at the opening of the novel. Firstly, Hector quits smoking (again). Secondly, he breaks up with Connie, a teenager who works for Aisha, with whom he has apparently been having an affair. Thirdly, they have a barbecue for family and friends. Various people attend this barbecue, most of whom will feature throughout the book and whose lives we follow. In particular, there are Aisha’s two oldest friends, Rosie and Anouka. Anouka is a TV soap scriptwriter who is having an affair with a TV soap actor, Ryan, a man much younger than her. Early on, she finds that she is pregnant by him (more soap opera drama). Rosie is married to Gary, a low-life, aggressive alcoholic. They have a son, Hugo, who is nearly four but still breast feeding. Also at the party are Hector’s parents and Hector’s cousin Harry. Harry owns a few car dealerships and has been quite successful. He is married to Sandi and has a son, Rocco. He is, of course, having an affair. Though generally a good man, he can be prone to the occasional fit of temper. At the barbecue, Hugo behaves appallingly as, indeed, does his father, who is drunk. When the children are playing with a video game, he cannot grasp how to do it and smashes the controller against a table. Later when they are playing cricket, he is out but refuses to give up the bat and threatens Rocco with the bat and kicks him. At this point, Harry slaps him.

Gary contacts the police and the police interview both Harry and Sandi. People take sides. There is the view that Hugo is a horrible brat and that while Harry overreacted, everyone should just get over it and move on. There is also the view that Harry was wrong to do what he did – you should never hit a child – but most people (Gary and Rosie excepted) do not believe recourse to the law is the answer. Harry goes round to apologise but it has no effect. Eventually – just over half way through the book – the law takes its course and justice is seen to be done. However, Tsiolkas is not too concerned with the legal outcome but more with the effect the incident has on those involved. It does disrupt a few lives, over and above those of the ones directly involved, but these are soap opera lives, which already have had other disruptions or were waiting to erupt.

If you like soap operas of the somewhat racy kind you will enjoy this. Is X going to cheat on his wife? (Almost certainly, yes.) Will Y have that affair with the man she meets the conference? (Yes, you guessed it, she almost certainly will.) Will we have histrionics and hysterics in public? Of course, we will. Will woman A feel up woman B and man A have a go at man B? I think you know the answer. And do you approve of occasional slapping of misbehaving children? I think Tsiolkas probably does.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Allen & Unwin