It’s always a little dangerous to read something that’s been lauded by the press and even more dangerous when the author has been pegged as the next big thing in contemporary fiction. It’s dangerous because expectations are high.
I tried to go into The Slap with low expectations and also with as little media-induced hype as possible. Sure, this novel had everyone gossiping around the ubiquitous water cooler but other than the contentious central theme of the facial slapping of a minor, I didn’t want to know what else I was in for. I wanted it to be a surprise.
Was I surprised? Perhaps. But not in a contentious sense. I guess I was surprised that this lengthy novel is simply a running account of everyday life in urban and suburban Melbourne – a graphic snapshot of the lives of an extended family and friends, from wee ones through to grandparents.
This may sound pedestrian but it’s not. It goes much deeper than that. Supping hungrily on the multi-cultural melting pot that is modern day Australia, Tsiolkas’ urban saga is fascinating in that it delves deeply into the minds and vulnerabilities of its characters, taking cuttings from a wide cross-section of immigrant culture, peppered with the odd white Australian skippy.
With a large Greek family as his anchor point, Tsiolkas clearly writes what he knows. His main character Hector and Indian wife Aisha are the types anyone would like to know more about – they are most certainly the neighbours whose tall fence you would like to take a peek over. You might even like to be invited into their house, just to check them out and catch a glimpse of a life perhaps far removed from your own. Attractive, successful – they appear to have it all. So much so, you might even delight in the possibility of watching them fall.
When Hector and Aisha host a large BBQ for friends and extended family, the afternoon is punctured with the wails of over-zealous and persnickety children – typical of many a family gathering in the Australian ‘burbs. Readers will nod in sympathy and perhaps even cringe a little when a relaxing social afternoon is consistently disrupted by tiring puerile drama.
It’s when one particular child and one particular adult cross paths, however, that the real drama unfolds… in the form of an open-handed slap across a pert little pink cheek.
Was it deserved? Perhaps. Was it right? That’s your call. And Tsiolkas’ characters will soon regale you with their own varying opinion, as The Slap unravels its narrative through the eyes of eight central characters.
Just as water-cooler book clubs everywhere have argued the point of right and wrong, have skewed and escalated and dumbed-down the gravity of ‘the incident’, so do the characters in the book. Which characters condone the validity of this act? Which ones spurn it? Who is sitting on the fence?
Essentially, The Slap may be a real life and fascinating peek over the fences found in a typical Melbourne neighbourhood, but Tsiolkas also treats us to many a domestic secret, plenty of intolerance, and most deliciously – what people really think. He even goes so far as to reveal the thickly-woven inner workings of his characters, the weaknesses and sensibilities that make all humans an absolute piece of work.
Whilst I did enjoy The Slap, what I didn’t get from this novel was a sense of literary contentment. Indeed, perhaps more descriptive and evocative prose would not suit this style of novel – it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not and Tsiolkas obviously doesn’t apologise for this. Despite the fact that striking description is few and far between, the author nonetheless manages to write with a simplicity that belies the outcome. With just a few short words, we are able to envisage entire waiting rooms, easily conjure physical features and watch the heat rising upon a furious face.
There is nothing pretentious about The Slap. Characters are both rich and poor, likeable and unlikeable, sharp and stupid, vulnerable and commanding – just like real life. It’s plotline is unremarkable but therein lies its attraction. It travels several months past the incident, and while it refers to and consistently peaks reader interest in this central occurence, it also peels away the layers of the lives of its characters. Layers both unremarkable and remarkable.
Just like real life.
The plot is simple and has sharp little references that link together comfortably and satisfyingly, but there is also a lot that remains frustratingly unlinked, leaving the reader a little ungratified. Nonetheless, it’s clear the book was not written with this requirement in mind. Real life and its curiosities do not always resolve or reconcile. It is random and imperfect, quirky, exhilarating and dreary.
When it comes to all these elements, Tsiolkas knows how to represent.
Although The Slap certainly settles itself firmly into real life and purports its idiosyncrasies most beautifully, there are components that felt far from realistic.
The profanity, for example, is profuse, and while I’ll happily swear like a trooper under the appropriate circumstances, I do find it hard to believe that every adult character, even the grandparents, have the mouths of guttersnipes. Most characters are liberal with many an f ‘n’ c – and I’m not talking about fish ‘n’ chips – even in front of young children. Do people really speak like this on a consistent basis? If yes, how soul-destroying.
And maybe I’m getting old but the unabashed and gleeful abuse of alcohol and drugs is something I’m a little over. Yes, we all have our demons and humans are experimental creatures, but it was interesting to watch several characters stumble and fall down helplessly in my estimation upon succumbing to substance abuse.
But was I really meant to like them anyway? Is this fall from grace what the author intended? Unlike many other novels where character flaws and distaste can turn things into a muck pile, it’s obvious Tsiolkas’ intentions were deliberate. Was his intention to show us vulnerability and weakness, even in the supposed face of perfection?
No. I actually think – like the whole premise behind The Slap – the author’s intention was to present to us a singular journey through the real world.
And what a trip.