The Slap by Christos Tsiolka

The Slap by Christos Tsiolka begins at an afternoon barbecue in suburban Australia.  Family, friends of family and their children gather together  with the usual blend of affection and affectation. Everyone gets along until three-year-old Hugo threatens another child with a cricket bat.  The threatened child’s father, Harry, takes the bat away only to be kicked by Hugo whom he then slaps. Once.  The other children are relieved that an adult has finally disciplined Hugo who has been spoiling their fun all afternoon.  Some of the adults quietly agree while the rest are horrified at Harry’s sudden violence.  The police are called. Charges are filed.  The repercussions of Harry’s action are both long lasting and devastating.

And they make for a fascinating read that kept me up past my bedtime.

Mr. Tsiolkas is interested in how his characters react to what Harry has done.  While the book moves forward in a traditional linear fashion, showing what happens to those at the party, the narrator shifts focus from one character to another when the chapters change.  We begin with Hector,  the barbecue’s host, who does not really like either Hugo or Harry.  Hugo is the son of his wife’s good friend Roxie.  Hector believes Hugo is spoiled, raised by parents who don’t know what they’re doing.  His mother is still breast feeding Hugo at age three.  Hugo’s father, Gary, gets drunk every chance he can.  The slapper, Harry, is Hector’s brother-in-law, tolerated because he is family but no more admirable than Gary.  Hector knows Harry should not have hit a child, but he also believes Roxie and Gary go too far when they press charges.

Already most readers will have taken a position of their own, sure that they are correct. (Be honest, you have haven’t you?)   How can the morality of such an action be anything but clear cut?

However, as the narrative shifts from character to character, the reader is forced to reconsider what happened at the barbecue.  Through the mixture of characters, Mr. Tsiolkas gives us many points of view, from that of first generation Greek immigrants, to native Australians both white and Aboriginal, from teenagers to grandfathers.  Of course everyone brings their own baggage to the table, including the reader.  Mr. Tsiolkas lets none of us off the hook easily.  Part of what makes The Slap such a compelling read is the way the reader is made uncomfortable.  You think you know enough to make a judgement, but wait, what about this?  Don’t you need to consider what this character is like or what this other character has done in the past?

POSSIBLE SPOILER FOLLOWSThe book ends with a second slap.  Again, an adult hits a child, but this time there is no grey area.  This time no one will file charges with the police; no repercussions will be felt.  The child slapped will learn his lesson and move on with his life.  No hard feelings.  This time everyone will be okay with the same act of violence that occurred in the opening scene.  In the end it’s not the slap that upset everyone but the circumstances around it.  Who slapped whom and why matters much more than the act of violence.  What makes The Slap such compelling reading is not the position the author takes on the issue, in fact I doubt readers will be able to determine the author’s view. What makes The Slap compelling is the way it forces readers to reexamine the position they took the moment the first slap occurred.

 

Since I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have seen two television series based on The Slap. The first one, from Australia, is pretty good.  I recommend it.  The second one, done in America, should be avoided.  The American one is set in a hipster section of Brooklyn. Do any of us still care about the lives of hipster Brooklyn?  The American one was cowardly where the Australian one was brave.  There’s more of a gay plot line in the Australian one and the gay character is allowed to act on his sexual desire in ways the American one is not.  In the Australian version the character facing an unexpected pregnancy chooses to terminate, something no American television show is brave enough to depict.  So, just read the book. 

It was better.

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6 Comments

  1. Donna says:

    One of my favorite books! I was surprised by how fast I was taking a side and how the author slowly managed to get me see the other sides of the story. I only watched the US version, so I’ll go and check the Australian one soon 🙂

    1. I’m not saying the Australian one is great art, but it was better than the U.S. one too. Braver, too.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Interesting. I read this quite soon after it came out and was disappointed that the narrative voice really seemed to remain the same through all of the characters, when there was a chance for it to be differentiated and for the author to do something really interesting.

    1. It may be a question of reviewing the book we read, not the one we wanted the author to write. But I found the narrative voice to be a kind of character on its own. It’s been a while, but I recall a third person omniscient narrator how brought a slightly jaundiced view to the story throughout the focus on each individual character. I liked it.

      1. Liz Dexter says:

        It’s always an issue when people have raved about a book and then you don’t love it. I don’t remember that much about it, but if I’m in different people’s heads, I like to feel they’re differentiated. However, the idea of a single omniscient narrator does of course also make sense.

    2. It may be a question of reviewing the book we read, not the one we wanted the author to write. But I found the narrative voice to be a kind of character on its own. It’s been a while, but I recall a third person omniscient narrator how brought a slightly jaundiced view to the story throughout the focus on each individual character. I liked it.

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