The Slap

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

I like to read. Pretty much anything I can get my hands on, magazines, blogs, cereal packets at breakfast...anything really which can be a tad annoying for my nearest and dearest. I’m definitely a member of #teamrealbooks so a Kindle is NOT on my wish list, I love taking books in the bath and that just seems like a risk too far. I like a lot of different genres. I’ve had my teen years full of romance novels, bonk busters (aahh Jackie Collins) and chick lit; now I prefer real life situations, complex characters, plausible dialogue.
A book I read at the end of last year, ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas has all of that and then some. The books blurb pretty much sums up the premise: ‘At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps an unruly boy. It’s a single act of violence. But this event reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen.’ This one act strongly divides moral opinion among the BBQ attendees, shatters relationships and continues to cause waves for months. It’s an international best seller and recently been dramatised by the BBC, starring Melissa George and Sophie Okonedo, so obviously I’m not the only one who thought so, but here’s a few reasons why I loved the book:
The narrative structure is not unique but is rarely executed so well. Each chapter is told by a different character, all of whom were present at the BBQ when the slap took place and continues over the following months as the aftermath ripples through the group. The BBQ provides the perfect setting to showcase the interconnectedness of a number of relationships; family, friends and work colleagues spanning three generations and one of Tsiolkas’ strengths lies in providing authentic voices for both men and women of different races and ages. Cultural, age specific references help ensure the voice is just as strong and believable for 17 year old Richie ( Lily Allen, The Streets, drugs, university pressure and unrequited gay love) as for Manolis in his sixties (Greek words and phrases, thoughts of mortality and memories of his migration to Australia from Greece).   

Every single character is flawed. Every one. And not a ‘oh she’s always later or a bit bitchy or a shit cook’ kind of flawed, seriously flawed. A bit like most of us then. None of the characters are all bad and none are all good, there are no out and out heroes or villains here. They are plagued with vanity, selfishness and lie frequently, they are unfaithful and scheming and yet they all seem so very, very normal. The people most closely involved in the slapping incident – Harry and the parents of the kid/brat (depending on how you view it) – are ironically the least likeable characters, presumably so that the reader sides with neither and actually has to decide their opinion based on just the act itself. Harry, who hit the child, is deplorable in a lot of ways; he is masculine to the point of Neanderthal, racist towards both white Australians and the Aborigines, misogynistic, violent – but he is hard working, fair to his employees, enterprising and family orientated. The boy’s mother, while being a sort of hippy Earth mother lumbered with an alcoholic, work shy husband, detracts from her victim status because of her unwillingness to discipline her child, her jealousy of her friends and her refusal to see other points of view or accept blame.
Tsiolka’s exploration of female friendship really struck a chord with me. Aisha, Anouk and Rosie have been friends since their teens and the trio have the bond of history but they often hold opposing views on things such as children and family, so the slapping incident brings these underlying tensions to the fore. Rosie is so steadfast in her belief that she takes Harry to court while Anouk believes the slap was justified and so an apology should suffice. Aisha’s character was completely caught in the conflict; having witnessed Harry’s violent side before when he attacked his wife, breaking her jaw, she finds the slapping of the child disgusting but feels pressured by her husband Hector, Harry’s cousin, to support her family. These tensions simmered beneath every meeting of the friends, but were symptoms of other issues at play between the women and the majority of female friendships. Rosie adores and admires Aisha, cherishes their friendship and yet at the same time is tortured by jealousy at her financial standing and seemingly perfect home life. I think most females, as proud as they are of their friends sometimes experience feelings of jealousy and this was dealt with realistically; subtle hints over the months the book spanned. Anouk and Rosie, while often sharing moments of genuine affection towards each other due to their shared history, had outgrown each other and both knew it; Anouk found Rosie judgemental and weak, Rosie thought Anouk abrasive and cold. The friendship only remained because of Aisha. Yeah, I’ve been there...
The last thing I liked was that the book was set in suburban Australia. I can’t say I’ve read or watched much set down under; I’m not counting the pre-watershed, family fun of ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home and Away’ here, obviously. Tsiolka’s writing is rich and highly detailed and so the images he paints of both the Australian coast and the suburbs are undeniably strong. He is able to perfectly capture a slice of society. The issues between white Australia and the Aborigines are well documented, but several of the characters are of Greek origin. The racial separations between the characters were so ingrained but also typical of ‘modern racism’ – everybody was civil, courteous even, on the surface, but the individual chapters allow the reader to digest their real thoughts. While I was relatively unsurprised by the white characters intimidation by or fear of the Aborigines, I was taken aback that some of the Greek characters felt the same and looked down on them, calling them derogatory names like ‘wogs’. I’m not entirely sure why I was surprised, perhaps it was the absolute vehemence of Harry and the fact that he was instilling his beliefs into his young son that shocked me. I was even more shocked that both the Greek and Aborigine characters looked at the white Australians as ‘trash’. The references to them as alcoholics with no morals were so casual it was almost a given, and maybe I’m ignorant but I wasn’t aware of the stereotype so it was an eye opener.  
Oh yeah, and all of the adult characters lamented the lost generation with their rudeness, lack of respect, desire to look like sluts and spoilt behaviour. Ah, good to see it’s the same for the youth over there as it is over here.

Christos Tsiolkas

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