Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2009

The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

the-slapThis is a deliberately provocative book.  Laced with filthy language and carnal appetites, it takes on a sacred cow in the opening chapter when an adult slaps an undisciplined brat.  I can just imagine the sniffs of disapproval as people read it…

The blurb tells us what is going to happen.  There’s a barbecue in the suburbs, and as the booze starts to flow and the children start to squabble, the brat goes to strike another child with a cricket bat, and Harry – who is no relation – rushes over to intervene when the parent doesn’t.  When the brat kicks him, Harry slaps him. 

‘You’re out, Hugo, you bloody spoil-sport.’ Rocco, at the end of his tether, went to grab the bat from the younger boy. With another scream Hugo evaded the older boy’s hands, and then, leaning back, he lifted the bat.  Hector froze. He’s going to hit him.  He’s going to belt Rocco with the bat.

In the second that it took Hector to release his breath, he saw Ravi jump towards the boys, he heard Gary’s furious curse, and he saw Harry push past all of them and grab at Hugo.  He lifted the boy up in the air, and in shock the boy dropped the bat.

‘Let me go,’ Hugo roared.

Harry set him on the ground.  The boy’s face had gone dark with fury.  He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright.  He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy.  The slap seemed to echo.  It cracked the twilight.  The little boy looked up at the man in shock.  There was a long silence. …(p40)

From then on the conflict is between competing child-rearing ideologies and it escalates out of all proportion, cleaving families and friendships as it tests loyalties and ethics.

This story paints an extraordinary picture of suburban life.   Tsiolkas claims to be depicting a new kind of middle class:

“I wanted to write about suburbia and I wanted to write about a new kind of middle class that had its roots in the old working class and in other places,” he said. “It felt like that had never been represented in our pages, that had never been shown on our screens. Maybe that is an element of the book that has challenged people or interested people.”  (Source: ABC News Online 16.4.09)

It’s not depicting any kind of Australian middle class behaviour that I recognise, and indeed the Miles Franklin judges who shortlisted the book say that all the books share a common theme of ‘scrutinising extreme behaviour’ (Source: ABC News Online 16.4.09)  so I find his comment interesting.  And does Tsiolkas not know that the Australian middle class has always had its roots in the working class? 

BEWARE: SOME SPOILERS

Perhaps what he is talking about is the emergence of postwar migrants and Aborigines into the middle class?  He has gone out of his way to render Melbourne as a multi-cultural melting pot, inclusive of young and old; married, single and divorced; and gay and straight.  One of the Greek men has married ‘out’ much to Koula’s disapproval:  Aisha the vet is Indian.  An Aboriginal man has given up the grog to become a Muslim and changed his name from Terry to Bilal.  He’s married to Shamira and they have children called Ibby and Sonja.   Elizabeth, Hector’s sister is a single mother of two boys called Sava and Angeliki.  Hector’s workmates from the Tax Office include Dedj who’s from the Balkans, Leanna, and the enigmatic Muslim Ari.  Anouk and Rhys work in the arts: she’s a writer of soap operas and is supporting his career as an actor.  Perhaps this kind of cultural diversity is a surprise to some, but not to those of us who live or work or shop in the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney.

Everyone  is sexually active including extra-maritally, except old Manolis, his wife and their friends.  Much is made of Rosie still breast-feeding Hugo at four, but what I found distasteful was the way Tsiolkas depicted most of his raunchy males slavering over women wherever they were.  For them, the female is a sex object, and they don’t let up.  How could any female have a conversation or a professional relationship with men like this?  

There’s an extraordinary amount of drug-taking, as if it’s routine.  Well, maybe it is in Tsiolkas’ circles, but it’s actually dysfunctional in the broader Australian society.  Less than 20% of people take cannabis, the most widely used drug, and its use is declining.  The percentage of people who take hard drugs is miniscule, mostly less than 1% while amphetamines and ecstasy hover around 3%. (Source: Australian Institute of Criminology).  But then the amount of filthy language used is dysfunctional too.  Adolescents use it in shopping centres to shock, and few of us can avoid hearing it every now and again, but the way it’s sprinkled through the dialogue in The Slap like 100s and 1000s on fairy bread is bizarre.  I’ve worked and shopped and socialised in working-class suburbs throughout my career as a teacher, and I’ve never heard language used quite like this.   What is Tsiolkas trying to achieve by using it, I wonder?

(Pause – to browse through Dead Europe by the same author on my TBR.  Every page I opened – at random – had similar obscenities: p211, p282, p148, p361, and there was a similar preoccupation with seedy sex: p137.   It seems to be Tsiolkas’ default language. )

The story is  told from the point of view of eight of a large cast of characters:

  • Hector, father of two and married to Aisha but fancies her assistant Connie. 
  • Harry, ‘the villain’.  Hector’s cousin, a successful mechanic and owner of three small businesses.  He’s married to Sandi and father of 8 year old Rocco. 
  • Rosalind (Rosie), married to Gary the drunk and earth-mother to the brat, Hugo.
  • Connie, orphaned, still at school and living with her aunt.
  • Manolis, Hector’s father and Harry’s uncle.  Married to Koula. 
  • Aisha, Hector’s wife. A vet. Mother of Melissa and Adam.
  • Richie, Connie’s friend and coming to terms with being gay.

A recurring sub-theme is the public v private school arguments.  This begins when Harry and Sandi – who’ve left their ‘westie’ childhoods behind them – announce that they’re sending Rocco in a ‘beachside private school’.  This produces the usual stances – we’ve all read them in the annual Back-to-School features in The Age.  What is interesting to me is Harry’s comment that ‘Australians don’t give a f- about their children’ – as if he, born in Australia himself, is not Australian.   This is a rather odd attitude to have about your own country.  Hector and Aisha are in conflict over the issue too, and for once Tsiolkas seems to lose control of his material and lapse into pontificating.  Clearly this is an issue that he feels strongly about and I think we can take it that Hector’s voice is his own.

‘You knew when you married me that this was the way I felt.  I’m not going to change.  I can’t be a man who sends his children to private schools.‘ (p395)

I  felt very sorry for Manolis when Aisha rejected his fence-mending overtures.  She is so exercised by Harry’s action that she’s never going to forgive him and will always define him as a monster.  She will not, she says, attend his party, not even to please her father-in-law, and he is devastated.  Her ease in rejecting him shocks him to the core:

‘You are not my father.’

He wished he could slap her.  So it all meant nothing, all those years of shared jokes, of affection, of defending her, of caring for her children, of assisting her and Hector with money and with time.  Love and family meant nothing to her? Nothing mattered to her at the moment but her pride. (p340)

He realises he has been a fool….

‘Manoli, I’m sorry.’

He turned his back to her and walked away.  The words dropped from her lips but they meant nothing.  Australians used the word like a chant.  Sorry sorry sorry.  He thought she loved him, respected him.  He’d nursed this hope for years.  He wanted to strike himself for his vanity and foolishness.  He had never asked anything of her before and she must know he would never ask anything of her again.  Sorry.  He spat out the word as if it were poison.

He thought she loved him.  He was just a silly old man. (p340-1) 

There are times when Tsiolkas’ provocations really jar.  In the milieu of The Slap, anti Americanism is de rigeur but the way the exchange between Paraskevi and Emmanuel is resolved is beyond unpleasant:

‘…the Americans rule everything.’

‘They destroy everything.’ Paraskevi undid the clasp from her veil, swung her head and let her hair fall around her shoulders.  ‘No one dares to do anything to them.’

Emmanuel shook his head.  ‘That’s not true, that lad, that Arab, he managed to bomb New York’.

‘And good on him’.

Katina frowned.  ‘Paraskevi, you’ve just lost a husband.  Think of all the widows who grieved in New York.’

Paraskevi made a loud squishing noise with her lips…’Katina, are you serious?  With all the suffering in the world you want me to care about the damn Americans? ‘  They all burst into merriment at the joke of it. (p311)

Are there really people here in suburban Melbourne who would think this funny?

Connie’s behaviour is a mystery to me.  She seems a fairly well-adjusted girl, given her circumstances.  Her gay father in the UK, having infected his wife, so that she died of AIDS, wrote her aunt a death-bed confession -which Connie has read.  Her aunt, Tasha has made a relaxed and welcoming home for her, and despite working part time at Aisha’s vet clinic and having an active social life and drug habit, Connie does brilliantly well at school – getting into vet science at Melbourne.   Her scene in the bathtub and a subsequent failed seduction by Ari suggests that any relationship she had with Hector went no further than fantasy yet she tells Richie that he had raped her (p181).  Was this because she knew that Richie fancied Hector too, and wanted to claim him as heterosexual?  It’s bizarre. Hector is married with two children.  It’s an odd way to assert that the man wouldn’t be interested in Richie, and it eventually causes all kinds of grief when Richie blurts it out to Aisha. (p463-4).

Of all these rather unlikeable characters, I think I like Aisha least.  In Bali, fresh from a fling at a conference, she reacts to Hector’s emotional outbursts with detachment.  It’s cathartic for him (p396-8) and they spend a day in mutual confessions, but this sequence shows that she really only cares about her children.  She fancies him in bed, but she gets tired of his revelations (p404) and she doesn’t want her life to be shattered if he falls apart (p405).  

‘I don’t deserve you.’    Oh Christ, don’t let him start crying again. ‘I’m so ashamed, Aish.’

She too looked down at the menu.  She had no idea what would be the right thing to say.  She felt bereft, drained of any compassion or sympathy towards him.  At the same time she felt him to be completely in her care.  It was this distance between her intentions and her desire that was making her so weary.  She would have felt furious if he had not felt shame.  But she did not want to minister to his grief, his self-pity and to his sense of failure.  A cruel thought flashed quickly and guiltily in her mind: be a man, deal with your — mid-life crisis – it is so boring.’ (p406)

Then, having broken Manolis’ heart and made such a fuss about how she couldn’t possibly betray her friendship with Rosie by attending Harry’s party, Aisha was relieved to be rid of that friendship when Rosie (predictably) overreacted to her change of heart.  (p624)   When Aisha agreed firstly to contact  Harry’s wife to congratulate her about a much wanted pregnancy and then to attend the party, it looked like the emergence of some maturity but turns out to be simply further selfishness.  Manolis is right about Aisha – she’s shallow and unkind, and she loves to take the moral high ground.  While she dismisses her own adultery as unimportant, she is outraged by Hector’s confessions, and she won’t forgive anyone else’s transgressions.  She labels Harry as irretrievably violent because of a single long-ago and long-forgiven incident of domestic violence (p407) and because of the slap.

‘He’s never hit her again.’

‘So he says’.  Aisha lifted her head and looked her husband straight in the eyes.  ‘I will visit Sandi, I will be a friend.  But I will never forgive your cousin, do you understand?  I hate him.  I detest that he is in my life.’ (p408)

What Aisha cares about is her family (which she defines as nuclear, not extended), work and friends.  She likes being married to a man who ‘still made women’s heads turn’  as if he is some sort of stud prize and she’s worried about the change in his behaviour not for his sake but because of the effects it might have on her. (p410)

Rosalind isn’t very nice either but her selfishness is bound up in her child.  She is obsessed with Hugo, always putting him first and indifferent to the effect his behaviour has on others.  The child is so unmanageable that when he spits and kicks at a harmless old man at the traffic lights, he even manages to anger placid, loving Richie, (p455-7) – but it is Hugo’s perspective Rosie wants to hear and believe. 

[Hugo] pointed at Richie. ‘He hurt me.’

Richie backed away, onto the verandah.  ‘I didn’t do anything,’ he protested, wanting to point at Hugo, needing them to know how unfair all this was. ‘Hugo spat at an old man.  I told him off.  That’s what happened.’

The two adults looked stunned.  Rosie shook her head. ‘I can’t believe that.’ She stroked Hugo’s hair. ‘Did the old man scare you?’

Richie’s mouth dropped open….(p458).

All Richie’s hours and weeks of loving child care and affection count for nothing in the face of Hugo’s accusation.  Gary believes what Richie says and tries to intervene, but Rosie is oblivious.  Teachers encounter parents like this all the time: ‘Oh, no, my child wouldn’t do that!‘ they say, as if it’s impossible, and like Rosie, they cast around for someone else to blame.  It’s very trying, and it’s disastrous for the child’s friendships because of course the other children think it’s not fair and don’t want to play with the child.  I don’t see Hugo making a success of his Prep year, not at all!

Rosie lies to Hugo about the outcome of the court case because she has promised him ‘justice’ that she cannot deliver, and this is consistent with her foolish capitulation to the child’s ego.  Gary, her drunken husband is no great shakes either, but it’s clear he’s fed up and doesn’t know how to handle the way his child dominates the household.  Will it be a new start for them in Daylesford?  I doubt it!

There is a small lapse in what appears otherwise to be good research.  The Indonesian currency is the rupiah, not the baht, and thank you in Bahasa Indonesia is ‘terima kasih’ not ‘terima kasim’.  (p378 and p384)  An editor should have picked this up.  

The Slap won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ prize for the Best Book in South East Asia (up against such notables as Helen Garner, Tim Winton, and Aravind Adiga) and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin 2009.   We had a lively discussion about it on ANZ LitLovers, and book groups all over the country are wrestling with its themes.  Whether it wins the ultimate Australian award or not, it is already walking off the shelves at the bookshops!

Author: Christos Tsiolkas
Title: The Slap
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN:9781741753592
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings $32.95


Responses

  1. So what is your overall final impression..?Should it win the Miles Franklin? I have to admit I got about 1/4 of the way through and was underwhelmed, but as you say it is garnering a lot of attention. I am interested in the opinion of the First Tuesday book club which is reviewing it next month

  2. Hmm, should it win? I think it belongs in the final cut, but at this stage it’s the only one on the shortlist I’ve read – so I’m not going out on a limb to choose just yet!
    Lisa

  3. I think this is Tsiolkas’ strongest novel to date. While his other stuff is very raw and powerful, The Slap manages to combine that with more ‘mainstream’ sensibilities – this is very much Tsiolkas toned down. And yet, somehow, it works.
    Definitely my pick for the Miles Franklin – the only one I haven’t read is Breath, and I’m not a fan of Winton, so I probably won’t get around to reading it…

  4. Phew, glad to find there’s one reader who won’t be taking me to task over my Breath post LOL!

  5. Have read The Slap and Breath. Breath is brilliantly written but The Slap is a powerhouse of a book & should win the Miles Franklin. I am surprised at how many people seem shocked by the characters and their motivations -I think many live very sheltered lives. Have to agree on the drugs/sex though. I live in inner city Melbourne and am a similar age to the characters and do not believe that drugs are so central. He uses it more as stereotype Aussies bogans chuffing on dope day and night. I do not think too many kids at Northcote High are injecting speed?? But a great book anyhow.

  6. Hi, thanks for taking the trouble to comment:)
    I agree that it’s a ‘powerhouse of a book’ but as you can see from a later post of mine (https://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/05/03/the-miles-franklin-award-2009/) I’m not sure that that should be a criteria for the MF!
    Cheers
    Lisa

  7. Really interesting in-depth review Lisa. I agree in general with a lot of what you say. However, for me the least appealing character is Harry. I think Aish is right to suspect him. He comes close to hitting Sandi again after she asks Hector to ask him to apologise to Rosie and Gary…there’s a scene in the kitchen where he grabs her hair, wants to “slam his fist into her face” but instead “he pulled the coil of her hair around his fist and brought her face right up next to his”. (p. 125) And then sees her terror and pulls back but not before thinking “he could hit her now”. And to be honest that single long ago incident was pretty horrendous – breaking her jaw. Of course I think forgiveness is important but he is one scary guy. Oh and like you I didn’t think much of Aish’s focus on and pride in Hector’s beauty (I felt there was an allusion to the Greek legends there) – but I have met a woman (someone I rather liked but this astonished me) who found this important. It is a good book to discuss I reckon.

    • Oh I agree that he’s horrible. But then they almost all are, really!
      I myself can’t understand why any woman would choose to stay with a violent man…it may be unfair of me to assume they can’t change, but someone I know said that her husband only pushed her once and not very hard, but it poisoned their relationship because she was always afraid he might do it again and so she gave in to him in arguments.

      Our group had an excellent discussion about The Slap. I don’t think anyone liked it much, but it triggered really interesting comment.

  8. I agree with you re a violent man though I can imagine recovering from something like being pushed depending on the circumstances. It would take time though. I guess with The slap it’s an issue of what we mean by “like”. I think it’s a well-constructed book and well-written (overall) book, and I found it intriguing to read, but I didn’t much like the subject matter!

    • Yes, that’s the thing. Even though it stimulated great discussion, I would not choose to read another book by Tsiolkas, and am hesitant about whether to read Dead Europe which has been on my TBR for ages or just flick it down to the Op Shop. I want my reading to be interesting, and I like it to challenge my ideas, but I also want some pleasure out of it….

  9. Read Dead Europe. It’s amazing.

    Mind you, it is certainly far more confronting than The Slap, but in a different way. While The Slap is worrying because he uses characters that are so normal, Dead Europe is very much steeped in magical realist-esque dream sequences and mythologies. But it is very, very good.

    • Hi Matt
      I don’t mind confronting – I’m too old to be shocked LOL!
      Lisa

  10. Ah, as I recollect I liked The White Earth quite well – more than Salt rain. I haven’t read the Carroll or Wood. I don’t tend to focus on trying to read all Miles Franklin books though like to read them if they come into my various schedules. I read McGahan’s Praise and 1988 – they were presented to me as “Gen X” books (by a Gen X-er). I liked them well enough but the characters were pretty frustrating!

  11. Reminds me – just vaguely – of Andrew McGahan whose first couple of novels were quite confronting in their way (drugs, aimlessness etc) but then White Earth was quite different so maybe Tsiolkas will move into something different too?

    • The only thing I’ve read by McGahan was The White Earth and I was very disappointed when it won the MF. It was up against Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong, The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll and The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood. I think The White Earth won because it tackled contemporary issues, but I didn’t like it at all.

  12. Does reading about what Tsiolkas himself thinks help in any way?

    http://www.meanjin.com.au/editions/volume-68-number-2-2009/article/delivering-a-punch/

    Read it – it’s really interesting.

    • Well, I’ve read it, Matt, and other interviews about his theories of class, gender, the suburbs etc. but to be quite honest, I’ve moved on from The Slap. Over it, as they say. I read it back in April, that’s 28 books ago! Lisa

  13. […] The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas […]

  14. […] shows a Melbourne I do not recognise and certainly don’t want to know, in the now notorious The Slap.  Some of his other books are set in Melbourne too, I am […]

  15. […] see a reasonable list of links to synopses and reviews, but I’d like to recommend Lisa Hill’s post in her ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. Lisa reads voraciously, reviews thoroughly and is not afraid to say exactly what she thinks. This […]

  16. […] The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas […]

  17. Hi Lisa, I realise you read this a while ago, but I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your perspective on this, since it is definitely a book that is intended to provoke strong reactions.

  18. Hi Gabriel
    It’s turned out to be the book of the year in the sense that it’s generated a lot of interest, hasn’t it? This post has now had 1,223 hits, more than any other post on this blog. Amazing, eh?
    Lisa

  19. […] Tsiolkas has a narrative style that well suits his approach. His writing is brisk; he has a flair for using detail to advantage and, for the most part, his characters do come to life. As a reader who does not know Melbourne at all, he also does a good job of creating an urban community — both the parts that are attractive and those that are not. (For a couple of views from readers who know Australia much better than I do check out Reading Matters and ANZ LitLovers.) […]

  20. I like the book right up to the ending. Sure I hated the characters but I loved their interior activity and the awful collisions that Christos imagined for us.
    For me the story needed a tragic ending! The ending was pure Enid Blighton or Biggles and Christos missed out on an opportunity to produce a masterpiece of an ending. I feel like he wrote the ending with Connie’s parents but he put it halfway through rather than at the end. There was so much scope to leave the reader shattered after the tortuous journey rather than with the unsatisfied feeling I had when I finished.
    I look forward to more of Christos’ work as he continues his writing journey.
    Harry

    • Hello Harry, and welcome to ANZ LitLovers! Thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      *chuckle* I love the reference to Ms Blyton – I suspect she would be apoplectic if she read all those rude words LOL!
      Lisa

  21. What a fabulous review Lisa. Deliberately provocative was certainly something I wondered about. And if this is his least provocative book! WOW. I agree that the anti-American sentiment did seem odd in Manolis’ chapter. The slap itself is interesting. It’s only really debatable because he made Hugo so awful. An uncontrolled, obnoxious child. And every adult there is so very flawed.

  22. I’m bring forward an older post here because my blog review of The Slap has been getting a large number of search-based hits in the last couple weeks. Are you experiencing the same thing? My hypothesis is that North American book clubs have discovered the book (as your experience indicates, it is a provocative book club choice) which means even more sales, somewhat unusual for a two-year-old book.

    • HI Kevin, The Slap is my all time top review post – it’s up to 3753 hits now. While it’s had hits almost continuously ever since I wrote it, it’s had a surge lately, but I’d put that down to the TV series currently running on ABCTV here.
      They must have sold an awful lot of copies!

      • Whereas for some reason my post on the book is *very* low down in my hit list, way past Silvey, Malouf, Garner, Hornung and others. Weird, eh?

        • It must be Google and its peculiar algorithms!

          • They certainly mystify me … every time I research it I feel I’m going around in circles so I give up because on the surface nothing seems consistent. Oh well, c’est la vie.

  23. I’m late to this book but I think your review slapped the nail on the head. A new set of stereotypes for Australians to cringe over. None of them rang true to me and I know a lot of people in suburbia.

    • Hello Jan, I’m delighted to hear this:)
      It’s not a book that does us proud.
      Cheers
      Lisa

  24. […] of Progress and a Sensational Snippet Brenda Niall, see my review of Mannix Christos Tsiolkas, see my review of The Slap and The Guardian’s review of Merciless Gods Chris Wallace-Crabbe, read some of his poems at […]

  25. […] and sleazy beginning put me in mind of the unpleasant characters in Christos Tsolkias’s The Slap and the juxtaposition of the contemporary story strand with Grandfather Arkady’s survival […]

  26. […] and Best this month’s starter book is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  Having said my piece in my review, I refer you to […]

  27. […] and Best this month’s starter book is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  Having said my piece in my review, I refer you to […]


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