November 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

By Mary Ellen Jordan

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. 

'The Slap', By Christos Tsiolkas, Allen and Unwin, 496pp;$32.95
Cover: November 2008

November 2008

From the front page

Pub test: restart the boats

The Coalition’s scare campaign is no sure thing in the suburbs

Image of Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley’s Buzzcocks: 40 years on

The history and legacy of a punk pioneer

Image from ‘Camping’

Unhappy ‘Camping’

Lena Dunham’s new comedy series is an accidental portrait of toxic femininity


From Hillsong to the Bible Belt

Christine Caine’s Australian brand of evangelism has found its flock in America

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Thea Proctor & Margaret Preston

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Following Menzies

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ursa major

What might have been

Kate Grenville’s ‘The Lieutenant’

More in Arts & Letters

Still from The Front Runner

The spectacle of a political scandal: Jason Reitman’s ‘The Front Runner’ and Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Loro’

New films about ’80s presidential hopeful Gary Hart and Italy’s controversial Silvio Berlusconi both miss the mark

Image of Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley’s Buzzcocks: 40 years on

The history and legacy of a punk pioneer

Image of Les Murray

Les Murray’s magisterial ‘Collected Poems’

How to approach a 736-page collection by Australia’s greatest poet?

Image of a bushfire

Fair judgement without surrender: Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Arsonist’

The author of ‘The Tall Man’ tries to understand the motivations of a Black Saturday firebug

More in Noted

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA

Politics, culture and colour collide in Brisbane

Still from The Cry

ABC TV’s ‘The Cry’

This Scottish–Australian drama successfully subverts the missing-child genre

Image of Henri Matisse, A Game of Bowls, 1908

‘Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

From Matisse to Malevich: a considered snapshot of adventurous Russian collecting

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

For their Netflix debut, the Coen brothers return to the Western

Read on

Image from ‘Camping’

Unhappy ‘Camping’

Lena Dunham’s new comedy series is an accidental portrait of toxic femininity

Image from ‘Russian Doll’

A bug in the code: ‘Russian Doll’

This existential comedy is 2019’s first must-see Netflix series

Image of crossbenchers Derryn Hinch, Adam Bandt, Nick McKim, Kerryn Phelps, Tim Storer and Andrew Wilkie discussing the medical transfer bill in November

Debate over asylum seeker medical transfers reaches new lows

The government’s scare campaign against the crossbench bill denigrates doctors and detainees

Image from ‘Capharnaüm’

‘Capharnaüm’: giving voice to the voiceless

Nadine Labaki on what motivated her exploration of turmoil’s impact on children