Monday, 9 August 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap is a novel looking at a cross section of Australian life by taking the viewpoints of eight characters, all whom were present at the BBQ where the eponymous slap took place. Hector is first up, a Greek bureaucrat, married to Indian Aisha but considering an affair; then Anouk, a hard Jewish writer who cannot see the problem with hitting a child - and, in general, has no understanding of, or liking for, children; Harry is next - Hector's hot-headed cousin who delivered the slap. Connie is a teenager who regularly looks after Hugo, the child who was slapped, and dreams of becoming a vet; Rosie is the mother of Hugo, pathologically attached to him and still breast feeding her child even though he is three years old; Manolis is the father of Hector, a doting grandfather and fiercely Greek. Finally we hear from Aisha herself, as she and Hector take a holiday where truths come out, and Richie, Connie's best friend, a young lad waiting to hear his exam results and struggling with the fact he is gay.

I struggled with this book. It is annoyingly readable, but has so many flaws that, despite a storming and compelling start, it really tails off towards the end of the novel and you find yourself wondering why you are still reading.

The premise is fantastic - taking a child being slapped as a starting point, and exploring how this affects friends and family is just brilliant. I heard about this book at a blogger event and was determined to seek it out and read it purely based on the premise. It must be such a great sell - in fact, I have mentioned it to other people and they have shown the same intrigue.

Tsiolkas does a brilliant job at showing us a cross section of Australian life, a seething mass of religions and cultures, sexualities and races. With this morass of humanity, conflict is inevitable and Tsiolkas handles the macro issues of life in Australia as well as the micro.

I also liked how Tsiolkas was able to explore perceptions of people through the slap - at first we think Harry possibly had a case for slapping a child who was both misbehaving and threatening his own child (as much as anyone has a case for slapping a child, anyway), but then we discover that Harry is a foul-tempered man who keeps a mistress and has hit his wife in the past. I enjoyed having my perceptions overthrown like this - a literal exploration of not judging someone by first impressions.

So that is the good... On to the bad...

I've mentioned my dislike of profanity in books before. I can handle it when it feels natural and when it serves the plot - here we had (excuse me) cocks and cunts on virtually every page. It was an endless stream of bad language - and mostly used in universally poor sex scenes. It got to the point where I was sickened by the profanity and the relentless, grotesque mentions of masturbation and rough sex.

In fact, this book hit a number of my literary black spots: women being mistreated in terms of hitting them and forcing them into sex; young girls feeling as though they have to have sex to make them women; adultery; flagrant and accepted use of hard drugs. This book was simply filled with horrible misogynist men and women with victim complexes.

The pacing of the novel was entirely off. The premise was to do with the slap and this drove the narrative admirably for the first two thirds. The resolution to this part of the tale came way too early, and left me wondering why I was still reading the novel as it petered off into a limp ending.

Also, for a literary novel, this felt very much like a trashy summer read. I could imagine seeing similar characters and events in a novel that is as far from Booker Prize winning as I can imagine!

Altogether, I hated this book. Yet I read it greedily and compulsively. Something must have driven me to keep turning these pages, and I guess it was Tsiolkas' writing. Ultimately I wanted to finish the novel - whether that was simply wanting to find out the result of the court case, or seeing whether Tsiolkas could descent into worse depths of depravity in his writing.

Man Booker thoughts: Please don't let this book win! It might have something to say on racism, homosexuality, the life of ordinary people, but it is wrapped up in a novel that is filled with one dimensional cliched characters. There must be better novels on the long list than this one...


  1. Too bad that this book disappointed so much. Together with Room, The Long Song and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this one was one of the few that really interested me.

  2. I'm so glad you have reviewed this, I bought some books in Waterstones at the weekend and I kept on picking this up and then putting it down again, glad it didn't come home with me now! Great, honest review!

  3. @Mieneke - it is a rare time for me to suggest that people don't read a book, but here I would do that. I just feel there are far better books to read that this would be a waste of your time.

    @Dot - they are pushing The Slap in Waterstones hard at the moment, aren't they? If you are ever curious about this one, I'd recommend trawling the charity shops - this one will be all over them in a few months time.

  4. Hmmmm. I have to say after reading your review that this book sounds pretty awful. I too hate really bad, unnecessary language. I particular hate the 'c' word. One I'm going to give a miss I think...

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  6. I couldn't believe when I read that this book had been long listed. I found it so tedious, dated and the actually writing style mediocre. Trashy ang gratuitous? You bet ya. A number of my friends came to the same conclusion before we had even compared notes and didn't finish the book. Unfortuately I perservered. AND I'm Australian.

  7. Interesting review - my wife started reading this the other day (and stopped) and made many of the same comments you did. Definitely won't bother now!

    I think (though I suspect that I'm a little less put off by swears than you) that I'd agree at gratuitous use of bad language though. Used in the way that you described, it sounds like it's an attempot by the auithor to make himself, rather than his characters, sound edgy.



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  10. I came across this review on google because I wanted to see if others had the same reaction as me to The Slap. For some reason, newspaper reviewers have been exceptionally kind to this, but a majority of readers (check out Amazon) loathe this. I don't mind that it's done well commercially, but I hate that it's setting some kind of standard in the literary world. For a fantastic, well-written book about Australian contemporary life, set in Melbourne, also told through the points of view of different narrators (and written some six years earlier, I think), check out the New York Times notable book Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman. Now that should have been long-listed for the Booker!

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  12. Thanks for the review. Tsiolkas is really a mixed bag, and I've noticed that people have very mixed reactions to his work. I've only read Dead Europe (which suffers from some of the same issues), but I've a few friends who have cringed at The Slap for the same issues--the flat characters and the overgeneralised approach to various issues.

  13. And what is with all the adultry, drugs and swearing by these seemingly successful adult people-- is this really indicative of Melbourne/Australian culture?