November 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

By Mary Ellen Jordan
'The Slap', By Christos Tsiolkas, Allen and Unwin, 496pp;$32.95

The blurb on my copy of Christos Tsiolkas's new novel tells me that it's about the modern family. But most of the book's main characters are carrying frustration, anger and rage to a remarkable, even exaggerated, extent: surely the modern family isn't as strongly marked by aggression as these lives are?

The Slap, then, is about aggression and disappointment. It begins with a barbecue, during which a man slaps someone else's young child. As the narration shifts between eight characters, we see the protagonists' responses to the incident and its effects on their relationships. Tsiolkas uses evocative detail and great dialogue to create eight distinctive and convincing voices. I felt as if I'd spent time with real people; but because of this, I found myself wishing that I liked some of them a bit more.

There is a defeated, constrained and disillusioned world view that permeates the novel and makes a good many of its characters unappealing. Reflecting on her marriage, a woman describes love as "the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together", adding that only the young and deluded would want or expect more from it than safety. This kind of world-weary, almost self-congratulatory disillusionment surfaces more than once in characters who are too passive to alter their lives.

By contrast, we meet two teenagers, best friends Connie and Richie, who are grappling with how they fit into the world, who they are, and how they relate to others. Despite facing difficulties, they are open and positive. The narrative is at its strongest in these two sections, when we see Tsiolkas's sophisticated development of the friends' inner lives, and watch them struggle to understand their situations with more subtlety than any of the other characters.

The Slap is powerfully written and sometimes engrossing; its characters are vivid; there is a strong sense of place and culture. But in the end, the book left me wanting more: the resonance that would give it greater meaning. 

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