Hard love

The Slap

By Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap is a novel that lives up to the hype. The back cover of the edition I just closed is covered with critical praise any author would die for – and I agree with all of it. As one reviewer puts it, The Slap is an “urgent book that hunts big game”. What an excellent description.

The premise of this novel is perfect for a blind submission to a literary agent because its story is so easily established. Family and friends at a suburban barbecue. A man slaps a naughty boy. The boy is not his son. The offence opens a can of worms, which spill out across all 500 pages in Tsiolkas’ clear prose. He crafts a multidimensional story through the eyes of different characters. I was particularly impressed by the way he channels each character, from an old man with a judgmental wife to a teenage girl with a crush. Each character in this book feels, and you the reader feels with them. Tsiolkas’ achievement really is that great. Not for a good few months have I really got into the mind of fictional characters.

And then there is the story itself, of course. The “big game” Tsiolkas hunts is middle-class life in Australia in the present day, in all its multiethnic patchwork, its liberal conservatism, its economic realities, its family ties. Only one aspect of Tsiolkas’ portrait of life feels contrived, and that is the human diversity. It seems as if Tsiolkas has included as much diversity as possible in order to make for starker contrasts between characters and to ratchet up the friction. Over time, once you get used to the characters and their stories, this problem dissipates. Indeed, it is most glaring only at the very beginning as they are all introduced during the barbecue, when the book could pass for a pamphlet about peaceful multiculturalism.

It is a minor flaw in an expertly written novel. The most satisfying thing is Tsiolkas’ uncanny ability to make the fact that life continues long after fulcrum moments feel like narrative closure – that’s a smart trick indeed.

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