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?
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.