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?
I thought it was truly dismal, and felt maybe extra betrayed as I had built it up in my mind to be a really good read, I could see the repercussions of the slap rippling out and looked forward to the “discussions” the act would provoke. Wrong. What I got was a coarse, samey, smug load of old tutt. All the characters are basically the same (apart maybe from the teens and the old dad). The child was odious, the writing clunky and aggressive. Neighbours it aint.
Thanks for sharing your experience of the book, I know a lot of people feel the same way as you do and I agree that the title and the blurb make it sound a lot more story-driven than it actually is.
Interesting review! I’m still not sure whether to read this book. Not only are the amazon reviews very mixed, but I have friends who’ve enjoyed it and friends who’ve hated it (all friends with whom I share reading tastes, so this is confusing). I’m not easily offended, but I like my sex to be well-written and relevant (if you see what I mean) and my swearing to be character-appropriate and preferably funny. Most of all, I want to convinced by the characters and drawn in to the story. It sounds like a great premise, and if there’s some great writing, I’m thinking again, maybe I should read it. But it’s a big book to commit to, and I’m still not entirely convinced…
Thanks for your comment. I felt the same way for a long time, and it was only when I went on a book group weekend to France recently and one of my friends couldn’t put the book down that I decided to give it a go. Turned out another two of us had previously read about a third and given up, but they went back to it subsequently. If nothing else it makes for a good controversial discussion, and I always like that. If you do try it, let me know how you get on !
Hi Isabel, my my I have not read the book yet, and as I value your review so much I doubt I will go out and purchase the book at all. Perhaps if a friend ever leave a copy laying around I might read it, but I am not sure I want to put money into the pocket of an Author that writes with the “c” word twice in the opening paragraph. No, Im not a prude, but there is a time and place for that type of writing.
Thanks for the informative review and the great blog.
Thanks for your appreciation and support for my blog, Peter and glad you enjoyed the review even if you’re not enticed by the book ! I personally draw the line at the C word – if there is a time and place for that kind of writing, it’s in a kind of publication I don’t want to read.
I’ll be very interested to see if they moderate the language in the TV series, which I’m guessing they might have to to sell it overseas (if it’s unadulterated in the original, that is.)
Good review. I think CT uses the ‘c’ word to challenge the reader – you’re too prudish to bother with if you can’t take it. To me the language was a bit like a naughty boy showing off. I found all of the characters in the novel really unpleasant and a bit dull, and didn’t really want to spend that much time with them. I kept reading it because I was interested in the way the book was constructed, as a cascade of loosely connected character studies, but I was insufficiently bothered about them to finish it – I got to the penultimate chapter and then had really had enough of it.
Thanks Rowena. Gosh, to get so close to the end – you must have been really sick of it. Actually the final chapter is one of the better ones I thought, and in one place there was something vaguely heartwarming in it – a tiny ray of hope – of which there are evidently not many in the worldview of CT. Like your reviews and look forward to reading more. Well done for getting the word neophyte into your Twitter profile. Good word.
ive just finished reading this book and I found it challenging to read to the end. after the slap court action was over I lost interest as there was nothing binding the storyline. it just seemed to go downhill from then on and I sped read a lot just to finish. a lot of what happened didn’t ring true to me like with rosie not liking her child at first but then it suddenly changed. and aish being the moral high horse type person having the sordid affair at the conference just didn’t ring true to me. in reflection it seems like the author was expressing every sordid sexual fantasy he wants. the teenage girl, then the teenage girls together, blah blah it just got boring. I do agree with other reviews that I felt more connected to the teenagers in the story, especially Richie but his storyline just touched on issues. it couldn’t delved much deeper but didn’t.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lisa. There’s no doubt Tsiolkas is a challenging author who provokes strong reactions. However, from what you say I’m guessing you don’t know that he’s gay?