Repellent characters, foul language, horrible sex… More than three years after it was published, The Slap continues to reverberate, not least in its native Australia where the TV series is currently being broadcast. This book has quite a reputation. When it came out in the UK in 2010 (and made the Booker longlist) a book group in my area decided to read it and halfway through, one of its members sent a bossy e-mail to the others forbidding them to continue because she found it so offensive. For a long time I was put off not by that, but by being told it was badly written.
Of course it’s only by reading the book that you can make up your own mind and I’m glad I did. I think it contains examples of both great and dreadful writing. On the face of it, this is a story about a man slapping someone else’s small child at a barbecue, the fallout being shown in turn through the viewpoint of eight characters who witnessed it. In practice, the slap is the device that links their stories in a fairly loose fashion, shedding light on their relationships and beliefs. It’s not plot-driven at all.
Tsiolkas must have known exactly how it would be received. Opening a novel with a middle-aged man fantasising about a teenage girl and using the ‘C’ word twice in the first paragraph is about as provocative as it gets. The crude language continues throughout (by almost everyone) and whilst I don’t object to swearing or sex in fiction per se, this book made me reflect on what kind and how much works. The Slap contains many of the most offputting and unerotic sex scenes I’ve ever read.
I couldn’t get too excited about the slap or the legal proceedings that followed. The basic premise is rather weak, given that slapping children isn’t illegal in Australia. It’s only because the victim’s mother, Rosie, is culturally different to the other adults that there’s a story there at all. I was far more interested in the characters and the way Tsiolkas gets inside their heads, and by his tense portrayal of contemporary multiracial Australia. It’s an urban fact that Melbourne is the second largest Greek city in the world and I once spent several months there, albeit many years ago. Many but crucially, not all of the characters are Greek-Australian. By starting with the account of Hector, the host of the barbecue, and continuing with that of his cousin Harry, the perpetrator of the slap, the author lays down a challenge: Are you hard enough to get through the first 140 pages ? That’s a lot to ask and many readers don’t get that far. Hector and Harry are brutish characters. Obsessed with their own particular vision of masculinity, they are sexist, racist and unscrupulous, though not altogether without loyalties. Tsiolkas certainly doesn’t seem to be taking on any stereotypes about Australia here. The female characters aren’t exactly soft either and I found them less convincing, especially in terms of their attitudes to sex.
The eight storylines aren’t equally engaging. I was drawn in by the confusion and goodness of teenagers Connie and Richie and at the opposite end, Hector’s elderly Dad, Manolis, reflecting on the struggles of the immigrant experience and the pain of seeing friends die. A deep sense of ennui and discontent unites the narratives of the 40-something characters whether or not they are successful by society’s standards (also much examined). Trapped in unsatisfactory relationships and jobs, they brood about the gap between their lot and their dreams. Although they weren’t likeable enough for me to feel empathy, the themes are universal (think Revolutionary Road) and towards the end I was so hooked that I dragged the brick-sized book into Central London two days in a row to finish it on the Tube.
It takes a lot of nerve to write a book like this and a certain amount of grit to get through it. I thought it was worth the effort.
Did you last the distance?